As a New Orleans parent and an active member of my community, I think of myself as an expert on the experiment in education reform that transformed my city into the nation's first all-charter school district. So when I attended a recent community-centered conference on "The New Orleans Model of Urban School Reform: A Guide or a Warning for Cities Across the Nation?" I wasn't sure there'd be much for me to learn.
In fact, given the focus on academic urban education research, I feared the event would speak only to people who have Ph.D.s or are working on getting one, neither of which describes me.
But the research on what has happened to New Orleans over the last ten years shocked me. The story of what happened here is important not just to those of us who live here, but to people who live in any of the cities where New Orleans-style education reform is headed next, possibly including yours.
Parent activist Anthony Parker described what he called "washing machine" approach to education reform: "Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat." He was talking about what happens to children. Children wait at bus stops as early as 4:30 in the morning and don't get home until 7:30 or 8:00 at night. Then it's time to do homework, go to sleep, get back up and repeat the cycle all over again. Children are badly sleep deprived. Despite the long school days, children often get no time for social development because of the strict and rigorous atmosphere of the charter schools here. Nor are they learning from a curriculum that feels relevant, respectful, and accessible to a child of color growing up in this community. This is a painful and unnecessary waste of most of these children's time.
Parker, whose grandparents taught in the New Orleans Public Schools for a combined sixty years, described how hard it was to explain to his son why he can't attend their neighborhood school after his charter school was closed. For Parker's own son, who is just seven years old, "washing machine" reform means he'll be attending his fourth school this fall. "Wash, rinse, repeat."
The lives of adults have been disrupted, too. Charmaine Neville talked about her relationship to the schools in the New Orleans neighborhood of Bywater. Before the storm, she was deeply involved in schools across the city, volunteering, tutoring, and giving lessons of all kinds. She described her heartbreak when she tried to help children with special needs who attend the school across the street from her house. Administrators at the charter school asked her what she wanted. "To help with my children," Neville answered. She was told that her help wasn't needed.
The word trauma was invoked by many speakers. Children are particularly vulnerable, and in New Orleans, children who were already traumatized by high levels of poverty and violence experienced one of the worst traumas in the nation's history. The response was to re-traumatize them by creating instability—the very opposite of what the children needed. Our children were in desperate need of counselors, social workers and therapists. Instead, they got the National Guard functioning as private security. Parent advocate and poet Nikkisha Napoleon describes what happened in the wake of Katrina as educational and economic "terrorism." She says that when she uses this term, people tell her she's being too harsh. If you agree with her critics, I encourage you to look up the definition of terrorism: the use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims.
Parent advocate Cristi Fajardo talked about a different kind of trauma. Many of the city's charter schools pat children down at the start of the day. Fajardo explained that for children who've been traumatized by unwanted touch, these pat downs—and the requirement by charter school operators that children begin each day shaking the hands of adults—can be re-traumatizing. Children who refuse risk suspension or expulsion. Charter operators in this new New Orleans district don't take children's trauma into consideration when making rules.
Fajardo and Napoleon spoke as part of a panel on "Parental Choice and the Struggle of Navigating Education Markets." Their nuanced stories of the parents and students they advocate for in the city's new school system were more powerful than any of the official PR you've heard.
I wish every education reformer could have attended the session, "Does the New Orleans Recovery School District Measure Up? Making Sense of the Data on Charter School Performance." Data experts Jason France, Mike Deshotels, Barbara Ferguson, and Howard Nelson used a super-sized PowerPoint presentation. The data was fascinating, horrifying, and clarifying all at the same time. In case you were wondering about the answer to the question posed by the session, it is a big fat no. As the presenters explained, if the Recovery School District was held to the same standard that allowed for the takeover of the schools after the storm, the RSD would only be allowed to keep four schools. Four.
So next time you read about the stunning success of New Orleans-style education reform, keep that number in mind. And try to talk to someone who is living through the experiment. I bet you'll learn a lot.
Ashana Bigard is a parent advocate in New Orleans.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.