Reckhow: "You Can't Bring Reform To A Community"
The feature article in the newest issue of One Day (the Teach for America alumni magazine) struck a chord for me.
It tells the story of George Washington Carver High School in New Orleans--a historically black high school and anchor of the black community in NOLA's Ninth Ward. The school was reopened after Katrina, but it has been restructured and currently houses 2 charter operators.
The article shows reformers who bear little resemblance to Michelle Rhee in their style and approach to politics, and includes voices of community members who fought the charters in Carver.
The article still advances some bold claims about academic progress in NOLA and details Teach for America's substantial presence. But once you get past those few paragraphs, it's not typical "One Day" material, and it's an interesting read.
Carver reminds me of two schools that I grew to know well. I taught at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, MD and I wrote my senior thesis on Hillside High School in Durham, NC. Much like Carver, both Douglass and Hillside were anchoring institutions in the black community--with famous alumni (Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway were Douglass grads; Andre Leon Talley and Biff Henderson are Hillside grads), superb music programs, championship athletic teams, and strong links to black churches, business leaders, and politicians in their respective cities. Words like "restructuring" and "turnaround" are anathema to the alumni and communities involved with these schools.
So I was not surprised to learn that the turnaround efforts and charter conversions at Carver were met with fierce community resistance. But I was surprised to learn the story of the long slow negotiations between Carver's new charter school leaders and the Carver alumni who opposed the charter conversions.
Betty Washington, a Carver alum, has fought for shared governance with the new charter operators. Washington is quoted saying: “Right now among the day-to-day decision makers [in the school], there are no African-Americans, and they’re primarily people who are not from here."
Another alumni committee member, Sheila Webb, is quoted describing the reaction of community members to learning about the charter conversion: "People felt it was a great injustice that had been done.” Yet Carver's alumni leaders and the new school leaders have started meeting to develop a prototype for shared governance.
It appears that some lessons from these negotiations--too rarely seen in turnarounds in places like Detroit, New York City, and Chicago--have influenced the thinking of reformers in NOLA.
Kira Orange-Jones, former director of TFA in NOLA and currently a member of the Louisiana State Board of Education helped convene a meeting with Washington and Carver's new charter school leaders. She critiqued the approaches of reformers who have closed out community concerns. Orange-Jones is quoted in the article: "They [reformers] were so fixed on the fact that it was OK. That was the part that really rocked me—how resolved they were that the perspectives of so many could be sacrificed in the name of a set of outcomes for children. They saw those things as so binary.”
Reflecting a similar tone, Chris Meyer, former deputy superintendent for the RSD is also quoted in the article: "You can’t bring reform to a community, you have to do it with them. You have to be willing to actually dig in and understand what really matters to them. It’s just a smarter way—if we take the time before we rush to create change, I think we may find we can do change a lot faster."
A Carver alum, Washington, is quoted describing her changed relationship with one of the new principals: "We listen to him, and he listens to us. I had prejudged him. Now my takeaway is that even if you disagree with something, sit down and talk to that person, understand where he’s coming from, give him an opportunity.”
These takeaways remind me of the lessons I learned from studying Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the article doesn't do justice to some alarming facts about the lingering effects of Katrina for Carver and the surrounding neighborhood. A recent New York Times article describes the temporary buildings (trailers) where students attend class and the lack of athletic facilities. Nor does the "One Day" article tackle larger issues about the consequences of charter conversion of a massive scale in New Orleans. I'd be interested to hear comments from folks who know New Orleans better than I do (Sarah Carr's new book is on my reading list) about whether this article provides a full portrait of the situation at Carver.
Michelle Rhee has been the representative face of the Teach for America "reformer" for too long. Perhaps people like Kira Orange-Jones in New Orleans and Steve Zimmer in Los Angeles could represent a humbler, more complicated, and more nuanced mold of "reformer" who sometimes knows how to listen and learn.
Sarah Reckhow is a political science professor at Michigan State University.