KIPPsters vs. Hipsters: Why so little choice in Downtown schools?

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By C.W. Cannon, The Lens contributing opinion writer|

The post-Katrina era in New Orleans has been marked by an oddly familiar mix of promise and disappointment, of rising above historic obstacles and of continuing an almost masochistic submission to them. The terms of the dialectic are continuity and change, and its fabric is skin color. Reconstruction and the post-Civil Rights Movement era are the two historic parallels.

In the two earlier moments, New Orleans came remarkably close to transcending a troubled history of racial oppression by giving integrated public schools a chance. In both instances, however, the achievement proved to be short-lived. Reconstruction was crushed legislatively (with help from night riders and lynch mobs), while the brief integration of the 1970s had the air sucked out of it by wholesale white flight and the suburbanization of the black middle class, an historic shift enabled by highway construction, cheap gas, and drained swampland.

In his 1911 classic of Afro-Creole history, Nos hommes et notre histoire, Rodolphe Desdunes captured a bitter irony. The blueprint for a newly segregated school system, promulgated at the constitutional convention of 1879, was seconded and welcomed by a bloc of black delegates. That these “American” blacks, as Desdunes characterized them, were manipulated by the convention’s white majority is worth bearing in mind, not just to underscore the brutality and chicanery of the white elite at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, but to accurately depict New Orleans’ intricate racial and ethnic fault lines; to this day, the black/white dichotomy so often superimposed on our racial politics falls well short of useful.

I can speak more personally of New Orleans’ second chance at equitable public education because I was on hand for it. Uptown, Downtown, Mid-City, Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the Westbank all boasted public schools that were integrated fairly evenly. I was blessed to attend an extraordinary oasis in the history of American public education: McDonogh 15. Located in the French Quarter (when that district still reflected its historic residential mix of black, white, Afro-Creole, immigrant, and bohemian), the school was a rainbow of New Orleans races, ethnicities and classes. The children of the Afro-Creole political elite shared classrooms with poor kids from the Iberville project, yats and  bohemians then re-discovering the old Creole neighborhoods on both sides of the Rampart/St. Claude corridor.  Some of this diversity was the reflection of a neighborhood fabric which has become, however ironically, less racially diverse in the years since the Civil Rights movement. But another factor was McDonogh 15’s “open school” pedagogical approach, a less rigid, more child-centered, more diverse curriculum than was on offer at other public schools of the time. There were a great many “misfit” kids at 15, of various hues and social backgrounds, who might have been diagnosed these days with an attention deficit disorder (ADD) or Asperger’s Syndrome. Diverse learning styles, in addition to diverse cultural backgrounds, found a home at the idyllic red schoolhouse on the corner of St. Philip and Royal.

In the fall of 2006 I attended a bittersweet alumni reunion on the school grounds. I read a memoir about our legendary band director, Walter Payton. Davis Rogan, Benjy Jaffe, and Andy Ambrose played tunes by Miriam Anak, who had been the school’s resident songwriter back in the day. State Sen. J.P Morrell, the son of Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who for many years was 15’s principal, divided his time between catching up with old teachers and friends and keeping tabs—by Blackberry—on his first big election campaign (he won). The reunion was bittersweet because the school was being handed over to a major national charter organization, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), and, from what many of us had heard, KIPP’s more regimented approach was worlds apart from the McDonogh 15 we had known and loved.

The KIPP approach is based on repetition, uniformity, discipline, and long hours of rote learning. Extended school hours, including every other Saturday morning, seek to make up for what are perceived as knowledge deficits in the target population. The weird kids who had thrived at 15 in my day (including me) would have lashed out or quietly suffocated under such a regimen. I took a moment and spoke with the incoming director, Gary Robichaux (who later joined Paul Vallas’ team as the Recovery School District’s director of elementary education and today is executive director of a charter management organization called ReNEW). I wanted him to remember that a racially, socially, and culturally diverse group of children found an island of creativity and tolerance under the open, flexible, imaginative umbrella of our old McDonogh 15. His answer was that “times had changed” and that kids today needed something different.

I’ve often wondered what he meant by that. Did he mean there was no chance that white parents would ever let their kids attend a school that also served poor black kids? Or did he mean that poor black kids are in need of a radically different educational approach than what kids of other backgrounds are offered? KIPP today is rapidly becoming the de facto downtown school system, the  subcontractor of choice to which the RSD turns rather than testing other models.

As New Orleanians argue over this development, some of the same old racially tinged rhetoric has come back to haunt us. People on different sides of the debate resort to racial coding to bolster their arguments. In public postings, some of those opposed to KIPP have insisted on a “charter school” as an alternative, apparently not realizing that KIPP is a charter school. For many New Orleanians (and recent transplants less familiar with New Orleans schools), “charter” has become a code word for “middle-class,” which in turn is viewed as code by many (however falsely in New Orleans) as “white.” This is probably because of the way magnets like Lusher and Ben Franklin secured charter status after the storm in order to open quickly and cut ties with the then demonstrably dysfunctional Orleans Parish School Board. The selective admissions requirements of these schools are perceived by some black New Orleanians (and, apparently, some white ones, too) as de facto segregation, though in fact both schools are among the most racially mixed in the city.

KIPP supporters also speak in racial code, as when they disingenuously invite “middle class” families to enroll at their schools. This is a rhetorical feint, designed to suggest that the problem for families who don’t want KIPP lies in their aversion to the demographics of the student body—which can be altered by new enrollments. Making demographics the fulcrum of change diverts attention from pedagogy and curriculum, which need not (and do not) change when students from different backgrounds arrive.

The most truly racial assumption in the whole KIPP debate is that poor children (which in downtown New Orleans mostly means black children) need rote learning, discipline, and maximum time away from their families and communities, as if these forces were detriments rather than sources of strength. Families who want more time with their children, to pass on what they view as a valuable cultural inheritance, are then charged with elitism. Thus families of all backgrounds are insulted, and the seeds of a sour distrust are sown once again. That the people toying with this rhetorical fire are often not native-born New Orleanians is proof of either cynicism or naiveté.

Rhetoric aside, there is no doubt that the location of school choices in the new New Orleans educational landscape foments cultural, if not racial segregation. A variety of public school choices can be found on the upriver side of Canal Street, including Montessori, language immersion, elite academic and, yes, KIPP. Downtown, however, is KIPP territory—including the French Quarter, which is far from an “underserved” neighborhood. This has the effect of concentrating families of diverse backgrounds Uptown; Downtown, despite its rich history of family life, is thus encouraged to become the province of childless party people, along with a vestigial smattering of low-income parents, who would move to a more supportive setting if only they could afford it.

The McDonogh 15 of my day is gone, as is perhaps its moment of “Rainbow Kids” idealism. There are, however, many integrated public schools in New Orleans today. None of them follows the rigid KIPP pedagogy. And none is in the Creole neighborhoods, where men like Rodolphe Desdunes envisioned schools as integrated as the neighborhoods where they stood.

C.W.Cannon is the 2010-2011 Fulbright Professor of American Civilization at Université Cheik Anta Diop, Dakar, Sénégal.

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