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Rodger Kamenetz

"The myths about Lusher High -- myths sadly stirred up by the city's daily newspaper -- exploded at April's heated school board meeting."

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There are two Lushers in New Orleans. There's the good Lusher and the evil Lusher. There's the good Lusher, the award-winning creative arts school, an outstanding school not only in the metro area, but in the nation, one of five to win a coveted Kennedy Center honor. A shining model of school integration, black and white kids, middle-class kids and kids on free lunch programs, all learning together.

Then there's the evil Lusher: a school of rich white elitists sucking resources from black kids in a failing school system. A neo-apartheid school, a lightning rod of suspicion.

Those of us who know the first Lusher -- who like me, sent our kids to Lusher or moved to Lusher's neighborhood for the opportunity to do so -- can never understand the hatred of Lusher. But that resentment is always ready to be served up at school board meetings. The latest example was this spring's catastrophic defeat of Lusher High.

You'd think that a proposal to expand an award-winning school, with a veteran principal, into a partnership with Tulane University, would be a very good thing. You'd think one way to improve the school system would be to build on success. But that doesn't take into account the myths of Lusher High -- myths sadly stirred up in recent months in the city's daily newspaper.

The Times-Picayune's education reporter, Brian Thevenot, is an up-and-coming star who wrote the best series of education articles New Orleans has ever seen. His series on the problems of a kid at Sophie B. Wright Middle School struggling to pass the LEAP test should have won a Pulitzer. He got close in at a failing school that's being phased out by the state. Maybe too close to avoid the contagious myths of Lusher.

I count 12 articles by Thevenot and others on Lusher High since October 2003. The average reader of The Times-Picayune might conclude by reading them that:

1. Lusher officials and school board advocates flew 'under the radar' in attempting to create Lusher High.

2. Lusher is a white school that takes undue resources from the system.

3. In a particularly egregious incident, the principal of Lusher disrupted LEAP tutoring classes at Sophie Wright.

4. Lusher High is a new magnet school, not the expansion of an existing school.

5. No other City Wide Access Schools (CWAS) are expanding at this time.

Not true, not true, not true, not true, and yes, not true.

Let's take the first count. With 12 stories -- some on the front page -- the Lusher High expansion must now hold the long-distance record for stealth flying. Talks with Tulane were first reported in October 2003 and the proposal discussed at a school board meeting in February 2004. An August 2004 article discussed tentative plans to house the school at Sophie Wright.

Several schools during this time were also planning expansions, but only Lusher gets tagged for 'under-the-radar maneuvering.' That's Thevenot's description in the March 10 story, and he's quoting himself from a story written a year earlier. Though previously he had reported the Lusher High properly as an 'expansion,' he now described it as a 'start-up,' a new school -- a much more controversial concept. (Thevenot declined to comment on the record for this article.)

The big mischief comes in the dramatically misleading way he links Lusher High's future directly to the demise of Sophie Wright. Lusher High was slated to move into the Sophie Wright building, which in a year will have lots of empty space, and at most 80 students. Twice in late February, Lusher principal Kathy Reidlinger led teachers, parents and students on an after-hours tour of the facility to check it out.

Here is how Thevenot reported those visits, on March 10: 'The intrusions by Lusher faculty -- including one that required canceling after-school LEAP test tutoring at Wright -- ticked off the Wright faculty, who had been told nothing officially by Amato about their possible fate.'

The word 'intrusions' is all wrong. So is the word 'required.' This was an empty school building at 4:30 in the afternoon. Reidlinger had nothing to do with canceling after-school LEAP test tutoring. Nor did Lusher cause Sophie Wright to be phased out by the state.

Generally, The Times-Picayune, like most dailies, corrects such errors within a day or two. Instead, the newspaper waited five days, until March 15, to issue a correction. Meanwhile Reidlinger, a veteran New Orleans Public Schools principal with national respect, was hung out to dry. Now, she was the white principal who single-handedly canceled LEAP tutorials for black children at a failing school.

That's how assistant editor Jarvis DeBerry played it on the op-ed page, one day after Thevenot's article. Reidlinger's tour of an empty building was a 'damning metaphor.' And damn he did.

Cueing off of the 'intrusions' language, DeBerry read Sophie Wright and Lusher in color code, with a dramatic analogy from the movie Hotel Rwanda. Writes DeBerry: 'The scene in the movie is particularly distressing because it's the Tutsis who are being hacked to death with machetes. In New Orleans, it's the students in virtually all-black schools who are suffering. Yet, the rescue effort seems aimed at saving white people. Furthermore, talk of the rescue effort has been going on behind black people's back.'

Now there's some language likely to spur reflection. Tutsis hacked to death with machetes. Those are the kids at Sophie Wright. And the white people being saved -- must be the kids who would go to Lusher High.

True, Lusher was moving in and Sophie Wright was moving out. Was that cause and effect? Not really, because no matter what happened with Lusher High, Sophie Wright would still be nearly empty this fall. But following Thevenot's lead, DeBerry wrote, 'The new school (Lusher) would replace what is now Sophie B. Wright Middle School.'

'Replace' plays into the myth again; a white school shoving out a black one. DeBerry reinforced the idea with a lead about the mostly white school he attended in Mississippi, where he was one of only five black students. Most readers would figure Lusher is a school like that, with only a token black demographic. But Lusher Extension is majority black, so DeBerry's lead is misleading.

Then there's the Tutsi thing. We might write this off to poetic excess except for this fact: according to school officials, about 70 percent of the kids from Lusher originally slated to go on to a Lusher High are black, and many of them would not have been able to attend other CWAS schools. Black kids were left in the lurch, all right, but not because of evil Lusher. No, it was because of the school board's vote on April 11 to cancel all 'expansions.'

Thevenot's article appeared on March 10, DeBerry's follow up on March 11. On March 12 came a T-P editorial that, with no sense of dramatic irony, opined, 'If the people who want to create Lusher High School hoped to avoid controversy, they failed.' Maybe they failed, but the T-P is being far too modest here. Thevenot's 'intrusions' story and DeBerry's follow-up piece did more than their share.

The final salvo against Lusher came on March 14 when Metro section columnist Lolis Eric Elie wrote a historical note attacking the school's namesake, Robert Mills Lusher, as an arch-segregationist and racist. Elie's call for a name change was quickly added to a laundry list of complaints about Lusher High being compiled by its opponents. Four pieces in five days, all negative, amount to an unprecedented attack on a single school. And not just any school, but one that is a nationally recognized urban model of racial diversity and arts education. Where was the balance? Where was the context?

All the myths about Lusher exploded at the heated school board meeting in April in which passions were so high, the board made Lusher High a moot point before even letting the Lusher parents have their say. Evil Lusher was hung around Amato's neck like a kick-me sign.

In truth, Lusher was adding a ninth grade to an existing K-8 program, a process in school system jargon called ''expansion' (and sometimes, 'rollover.') In fall 2004, two CWAS elementary schools, Franklin and Allen, had already added a seventh grade. Lusher was in the company of other schools requesting expansions for fall 2005 including Carter G. Woodson, NOCCA Middle, Gregory and Jean Gordon. If Lusher flew under the radar, there was a whole squadron of schools flying alongside.

By contrast, the T-P first mentions Einstein Charter school on March 2, and the board approved the school on March 22. Even though a charter school takes funding and certified teachers out of the public school system, the daily paper offered neither questions nor editorials. Why was Lusher High singled out?

One can only speculate. Thevenot had written so powerfully about the difficulties of Sophie Wright students, perhaps he was leading from his heart. But he leapt into advocacy when he boosted a nothing incident into the myth of the Lusher 'intrusion.' DeBerry hyped it further into a lurid symbol.

Without doubt, the rising eighth grade at Sophie Wright deserved clearer information than they ever got from the school system. In general, the plight of students in failing schools deserves much more coverage than it gets. Bringing Lusher into the story may have been dramatic, but it only inflamed passions. In the end, who was helped and who was harmed by all this myth-making? Maybe 100 kids would have attended Lusher High next year, of whom a great many were the kids everyone is supposedly concerned about: black and not middle class. And not a single eighth-grade kid at Sophie Wright was helped at all.

Rodger Kamenetz is a professor and author whose - books include The Jew in the Lotus. His - daughter attended Lusher School and graduates from - Ben Franklin High School this spring. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Rodger Kamenetz is a professor and author whose books include The Jew in the Lotus. His daughter attended Lusher School and graduates from Ben Franklin High School this spring.

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