A crowd of about 50 showed up for the charter board meeting. photo: Della Hasselle

Parents and community members are still reeling after a chaotic and emotional charter board meeting was cut short earlier this month at John McDonogh High School.

The John McDonogh Advisory Committee, a community organization formed last year to support and oversee the school’s charter board, met Thursday night to discuss how to move forward as an organization and help avoid charged protests that have plagued several school meetings during the past school year.

JMAC chair Clarence Robinson, who is also a member of the school’s Future Is Now: New Orleans charter board, said that his first plan of action is to ensure that future meetings are organized, with security guards present, to control any potential crowd outbursts.

“We can’t keep getting bogged down with stuff like this,” said Robinson, referring to a Jan. 15 charter board meeting that erupted in tears and screaming matches between parents, community activists and students.

“We’re never gonna have a meeting like that again,” Robinson added.

Committee member Ann Marie Coviello pointed out that many of the protesters who spoke out during the Jan. 15 meeting were neighborhood activists who had communicated with members of the committee, but had not regularly attended meetings or attempted to partake in-group decisions.

In order to help validate the identity of the advisory committee, Robinson, who acts as a liaison between community members and other members of the Future Is Now charter board, said that another of his priorities is to sign a memorandum of understanding with committee as early as Friday.

The MOU was originally supposed to be signed on Jan. 15, but the action was delayed after public outbursts abruptly ended the board’s session.

John McDonogh Advisory Committee members are hoping that the MOU will give them more power to address ongoing issues that students and parents are having with the school, most notably being the continual filming of the Oprah Winfrey Network documentary “Blackboard Wars.”

The series, which features John McDonogh students, characterizes the school as “one of the most dangerous and underperforming schools in the country,” according to the network’s news release.

Most of the members said that they felt the documentary exploited the students and includes misinformation about the school’s background and current issues.

Robinson said he wanted to take a good look at the contract signed between the school and the producers.

Coviello said that she wanted the advisory committee to craft a statement about their concerns and send it to the producers.

“We could ask them to be mindful of students when it’s publicized and say we have reservations about some of the scenes,” Coviello said.

Some of the negative press possibly could have been avoided, she said, if the advisory committee had been more organized and proactive before the filming began.

“If we had been sitting at this table before maybe we could have prevented some of this,” she said.

Robinson also said that he was concerned about the students. He said he believes the students were talked down to– and in some cases ignored — during the some of the Future Is Now meetings. Robinson said he wants to start polling John McDonogh students to get feedback about whether their issues are being resolved.

“We need to hear your voice, so I can come to the board and say exactly what the students’ concerns are,” Robinson told student Erick Dillard, who was present at the meeting.

By the end of the meeting, Robinson had made plans with Dillard to set up an anonymous electronic survey for students. Robinson said he wants to ask them about their classes and after school programs. He said he thinks the input could help him and the committee bring relevant issues before the board.

Advisory committee member and parent Cynthia Parker also said she is concerned about the school’s budget, especially related to its expenditures for special needs students. Parker said she’s worried the children who need the most help aren’t getting the assistance that is due to them, in charter schools in general, despite the fact that the schools receive additional dollars specifically earmarked for these kids.

Several members agreed that they would like better access to John Mac’s financial records because of issues like these.
Other issues the committee said they wanted to tackle included improving student test scores, monitoring teacher activity and keeping an eye on how academic supplies are faring.

As the last point of order, the committee said they wanted to formulate a plan to officially introduce themselves as an organized body to students and at parent and teacher functions –- a plan that will be solidified once Robinson and other members of Future Is Now officially approve the MOU.

At the meeting, Robinson mentioned that the MOU had yet to be signed because of emails community members had sent him addressing concerns about a potential “conflict of interest” concerning his place on both the Future Is Now charter board and the advisory committee.

Ultimately, though, Robinson said that while the situation may not be perfect, signing the MOU might get him one step closer to making sure parent and student voices are heard.

“If this turns out to be a dog-and pony show on FINS end, you can just walk away from it,” he said. “But I’m not walking away from these children.”

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...