Barbara Penn Provo's daughter, Phoenix, then a Lycee Francais eighth grader, held a sign supporting the school's civics teacher at a protest in 2023 after the teacher was fired. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Dozens of Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans students, clad in black, walked out of their high school Friday morning in protest of the firing of civics teacher Jennifer Whiddon, who they believe was terminated for encouraging students to express their opinions at board meetings.

“They fired the civics teacher for teaching civics,” parent Leanne Steen said Friday, standing outside of the Leonidas Street school’s fenced-in yard where students were gathered. 

Lycée is one of many schools across the city facing budget challenges as school enrollment continues to decline. To save money, administrators proposed several changes, including cutting yellow bus service for 6-12th grade students.

That proposal frustrated some students and last month, according to parents, high school students spoke at a meeting of Lycée’s board against the cuts.

“Jinger told them board meetings are public — you can speak at them,” Steen said, using the name Whiddon’s gone by since childhood. 

Whiddon confirmed her dismissal during a call Friday, but said she couldn’t be sure it was related to her students speaking at the meeting. 

“I was fired and wasn’t given a reason for the firing,” she said. “I teach my students that public discourse is a good thing and we live in a country that has free speech and public forums are public forums.” 

The Lens asked Lycée CEO Chase McLaurin, who was hired in July, about Whiddon’s employment status, the nature of her departure and whether he had a comment on the student protest. He provided a statement via a spokesperson. 

“Personnel matters are protected by law, so I can’t address that specifically, but I would like to say that we at Lycée Français believe strongly in free speech,” the statement said. “We have a collaborative environment, and we encourage our staff and our students to talk with us and bring concerns up for consideration. That’s long-established policy.”

“The issue you raise stems from differences of opinion about how to balance the budget for the 2023-24 school year,” the statement said, noting decreasing enrollment citywide is causing budget crunches. 

Whiddon taught at Lycée for nine years. Students said she was a leader across all facets of the school, leading international trips, and serving as the senior student advisor. 

“We are protesting against the board for firing a really important teacher,” Phoenix Cacko, who is in eighth grade, told The Lens. Whiddon was Cacko’s kindergarten teacher, she said. 

“We are protesting for a teacher who got fired for telling students to speak their mind,” another student echoed.

Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans enrolls nearly 1,000 students across three campuses. Its high school is rather small, with a senior class of 13 students, as it has generally grown one grade each year since the school opened in 2011. 

A gaggle of students ran across the lawn to speak with The Lens through the school’s fence. When they returned to the school’s entrance, a student’s voice could be heard over a bullhorn announcing that school administrators would be passing out sunscreen to the students. 

The students have planned additional activities in support of Whiddon next week.

Asked how she learned of her termination, Whiddon said she received a calendar invitation for a meeting with human resources and the principal on Wednesday.

“I was handed a paper and told this would be my last day on campus,” she said, noting she was escorted off the campus. 

Whiddon said she’s had no previous disciplinary action in her nine years teaching at the school. 

“I was completely blindsided. It was my life’s work to be their teacher and it was the honor of a lifetime and I love them dearly,” she said. “And I’m heartbroken.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...