The recently announced closure of Sarah T. Reed Senior High School in New Orleans will usher in the first school district in the country with no publicly run schools – and some community advocates see Reed’s demise as a sign that the local community’s voices don’t count.
“People in our community in New Orleans feel like the voices of parents, students, and teachers have been left out. It’s a perception, especially during this education reform process after Hurricane Katrina. That is how folks have been feeling for years,” says Chris Sang, the communications director of the Vietnamese American Young Leadership Association (VAYLA), a community-based organization that has fought to save the school.
Reed is located in the eastern part of the Big Easy. Its students are drawn from the surrounding neighborhoods, which are predominantly composed of African American, Latino, and Vietnamese families.
The school’s closure was announced by the Recovery School District (RSD), an agency established by the state in 2003 to address the problem of failing schools. The state legislature strengthened RSD’s authority to expedite school closures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when many New Orleans schools were physically devastated and student and teacher populations became dispersed.
While the RSD oversees failing schools, other public schools in New Orleans operate under the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But the majority of the schools that receive public funding in New Orleans – over 60 of less than 90 schools – are under the RSD, which is now exclusively composed of charter schools. Charter schools receive public funding but are run by independent boards and are subject to different regulatory requirements than traditional public schools.
As of 2013, 85 percent of the city’s nearly 43,000 public school students are enrolled in a charter school – by far the highest percentage in the country, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
Sarah T. Reed and George Washington Carver Senior High School were the last public non-charter high schools under the RSD. Along with Reed’s closure, it was simultaneously announced that George Washington Carver would transfer to charter control. Though some publicly run schools continue operating under the Orleans Parish School Board, the RSD will be the country’s first all-charter school district.
Sang says VAYLA will continue to provide academic tutoring and counseling to support former Reed students, as it has for other students who have been reassigned to different schools.
“For students from our community, [it’s meant] going to schools where there’s this implicit sense that if you can’t make it here, someone else will take your place,” says Sang. “We see a lot of charters that have written off the local culture here – particularly the culture of African American students – and promoted more of a corporate message. The parents do not want their children to be looked at as just a number or a test score.”
In addition to tutoring and ESL classes, VAYLA also offers cultural activities. Sang says that the VAYLA campaign at Reed was first centered on efforts to retain art, band, and leadership classes, among other offerings that had once made the school competitive.
“We were successful in getting a part-time nurse assigned to the school,” he adds, in a battle that he thinks should not have needed to be fought, but one illustrative of the way Reed and other public schools have become marginalized as the city embraces a charter school culture.
“The RSD never gave the same amount of time and attention to Reed that it gave to the charters,” he says.
The shift from an effort to restore programs to a fight to save the school itself came in 2011, when VAYLA learned that the school was going to be phased out.
“The reasoning was that it is a failing school,” Sang says. Once a school receives a failing score for a consecutive number of years, it can be taken over by the RSD, which is in turn run by the Louisiana Board of Education. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education makes the final assessment of failure.
But Sang contends that the closing became a rigged game. “When the decision was made to end a grade each year, given the subsequent student loss [and the resulting loss of resources], there was no way for Reed to ever recover,” he says. The decrease in experienced teachers and staff was but one consequence of the diminished funding.
“For students and parents, it will be a huge hurdle to have to wake up so much earlier to travel to other schools,” he says, anticipating that Reed’s students will be dispersed as the RSD has not found a charter school operator to take it over. “Some of those schools do not even offer bus service, and taking public transportation early in the morning or late at night is not only time consuming, but can even be dangerous.”
Myron Miller, who graduated from Reed last year, says he would have had to get up at 5 in the morning to go to a school in a different neighborhood.
“Sometimes the buses come, but sometimes they come late. Eleanor McMain Magnet Secondary School is in another district and there are a lot of bus stops on the way and a lot of traffic up there,” he says. “It would have taken about two hours each way. Reed is in my neighborhood. I used to walk to school in 15 minutes.”
Now a college freshman, Miller has been engaged in the fight to save Reed as a traditional public school since he first got involved with VAYLA’s initiative three years ago. “I told my little sisters I want to try to get the school re-opened so they can go there when they’re ready for high school,” he says.
Sang says he’s seen the downward spiral of a school before. He got his start in the education field through AmeriCorps in 2007, serving as an after-school coordinator and teaching assistant at a school in Chicago. While he was there he saw the student population begin to dwindle.
“The community was gentrifying,” Sang says. “The residents moving into the community weren’t interested in sending their kids to the local public school. They were looking at other options.”
The number of teachers began tapering off, though the predominantly African American and Latino parents – many of whom attended the school’s ESL classes – remained enthusiastic. But as the number of students declined, says Sang, there were fewer available resources as well.
“It was a democratically-run school. The involvement of the community was tangible. You could see it,” Sang says. The level of energy on the part of parents and activists in Chicago parallels what he has experienced in New Orleans in the losing battle to keep Sarah T. Reed open. Though gentrification was not the driver in Reed’s closing, Sang attributes the schools’ decline in both cities to similar root causes.
“Sarah T. Reed has never received the resources that it needed to be successful in serving its students,” he says.
Sang is not dismissive of the efforts of local charter schools to be inclusive, but he points out that some of the education reform advocates who come to New Orleans will have a significant impact on the education system before moving on.
“Long-time community residents who dare to question or challenge are sometimes viewed as obstacles,” Sang says. “We at VAYLA want to make sure that the people who are here are part of the process, that they’re at the table and that they get a chance to weigh in on what their future is,” he says.