Honoring Community

By Ashley Jones

The following articles are from participants in the Students at the Center (SAC) program, which encourages current and former New Orleans students and teachers to write about their lives, in school and out. Thanks to Jim Randels for providing these materials. For more information, see www.strom.clemson.edu/teams/literacy/sac

—the editors

By Ashley Jones

Nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina, we are finally in the rebuilding stages of the city as well as the school system — or systems, since within the title “public schools,” we have three different types set up in the city. There is the Recovery District public school system that is state run; the charter school system, which itself can be seen as individual systems, since charters create their own criteria in selecting students, teachers, and curriculum; and the barely-here New Orleans Public School system, which consists of five schools. The Recovery District school system claims that it offers its services to all students.

Yet even before Hurricane Katrina when it, along with the University of New Orleans, chartered its first school, Capdau Middle, it was able to purge this school of the 20 percent of students who had learning disabilities or behavioral problems. Since the storm, however, the state now has to take on these “rotten apples,” not just the wonderfully ripe, red, and polished handpicked pupils that populated the schools its accountability plan labeled most successful.

The selectivity of student populations is not the Recovery District’s biggest problem, however. Recovery District schools have to start weeks later than the New Orleans Public School system due to the lack of teachers and administrators needed to properly run its schools. This scramble for staff is made difficult since the flat-out firing and forced retirement many veteran teachers were subject to in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now there are not many seasoned teachers available. Most of the veteran teachers have relocated to other places around the state and across the country, while those who have decided to stay are teaching in the New Orleans Public Schools. Many charter schools are hiring recent college graduates, who only have theory and not the practice of teaching, because they are less expensive and easier to manipulate than veteran or union teachers. This means that many of these young teachers will be stepping into a real classroom for the first time, in front of 20 to 30 storms — afflicted kids who truly do need teachers who understand their culture and their personal circumstances. It is hard to believe that a first-time teacher from Boston who has never been to New Orleans prior to Katrina and who has never had a natural disaster uproot his or her own community could give these students the kind of attention and development needed for them to not only cope with but move past the devastation of their city and their lives.

The land-, or building-, grab involving the charter and state-run schools explains why out of the five truly public schools in the city, two share the same building.

The bottom line is that it is impossible for us to repair our city as one community when our children have to navigate three very different school systems.

The one good thing about the dismantling of the public school system is that those still working within it have the space and freedom to rebuild it into the school system it needs to be. With help, the public school system will be able to educate and uplift all of our community’s children in a way that will validate and utilize all their talents and gifts, giving each and every student the feeling of being valuable because of his or her differences, not left to fail because of them.

Ashley Jones has been a member of Students at the Center for nine years, since she was in 10th grade at McDonogh 35 High School. A 2005 graduate of Clark Atlanta University, Ashley is now a staff member of Students at the Center and principal member of the Listen to the People project, an oral history archive of New Orleans after Katrina. In fall 2006, Ashley will run a community-based media and technology center for Students at the Center to develop digital media production opportunities for St. Claude Avenue-area residents and for the students and families she works with in school-based residencies.