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Reckhow: "You Can't Bring Reform To A Community"

ScreenHunter_02 Mar. 20 16.55The 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.

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I do believe I have video of Chris Meyer singing a different song as he tried to force the "reformers" way on the Landry High School community. Apparently, Chris Meyer has forgotten his role in forcing this charter on the Carver community. I would think that he would remember since his car was damaged after he attempted to force his way through a protest one day at the school. Chris Meyer was instrumental in pushing these very reforms in New Orleans, first as an administrator in the state department of education's charter school office, then later when he worked for the RSD. Chris did not seem to have this idea of doing reform with the community when he fought tooth and nail against what our community wanted. Don't be fooled by this TFA puff piece. Only a handful of Carver Alumni are in agreement with this so called shared governance model. Don't you find it interesting that they don't talk about how that sharing works in detail? I have a copy of the plan and it's nothing more than an advisory committee. An advisory role the charter needed before they were allowed to move into the building. This is an example of divide and conquer. Kira Orange Jones is no different than any of the other "reformers" pushing their way into communities that don't want them.

Oh what a complete crock of you know what.
First, let's get it out there: Betty Washington is a convicted felon and disbarred attorney, okay?
Second, Eric Jones has claimed forever that he's KOJ's cousin and has never taken a dime from anybody to advance relations between community and operators. He sits in meetings with activists denouncing the RSD.
Third, Morgan Carter-Ripski has actually said that the only way to deal with Betty Washington is through money.
Fourth, KOJ allows BESE board members from Baton Rouge and Lafayette to take on the problems in NOLA charter schools while she sits texting God knows who. She's got no backbone.
Fourth, there is very little real education going on inside these schools. Transcripts are falsified. Scores are not verifiable. Look at the Carver "handbooks": they are nothing but catalogues of disciplinary procedures and scripted behavior.
I'm too tired to go on.

The educational reform is touching the entire state. In my district, they are implementing new magnet and Montessori programs that are struggling due to lack of support and apathy toward the system. The teachers are frustrated because of the changes and because of the constant stress of their employment. In my honest opinion, the teachers should have had some input on how education should have been reformed for our state. A joint effort would have been easier for educators and the community to embrace.

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