by Red Cotton
Ever the agitator be it pushing at-risk youth towards scholastic achievement or challenging status quo academicians to think outside the box, the name ‘Andre Perry’ is synonymous with making controversial waves on the New Orleans education scene. As such, its only natural that he would be publish a revealing chronicle about New Orleans school reform based on true accounts and local leaders in education.
Perry, the dean of UNO’s charter schools, is the author of The Garden Path - The Miseducation Of A City, semi-autobiographical fiction about school reform in post Katrina New Orleans told from the point of view of one educator and two high school students. While he is widely viewed as an education front-runner managing a group of successful charter schools in a newly created system, Perry is clearly at odds with his peers and the way in which this nationally herald experiment in education has rolled out. He shares his struggle to reconcile complicated realities through the book’s characters.
The Garden Path weaves various perspectives on education reform via three main characters: Doctor Isaac Boyd, who is based on Perry and ninth grade students Loren and Katura. According to Perry, there are only two fictionalized stories in the book: ‘the fire’ and ‘the chicken lady’. The rest, he says, are based on true events. In fact, many of the characters are easily recognizable local civic leaders which makes for an even more intriguing read.
Disclosure Number One: I’m friends with Andre Perry. Disclosure Number Two: I am probably the least likely person to write anything on the subject of the New Orleans public school system. Having learned the hard lesson of picking my battles wisely, I decided that working in local politics and covering culture events was enough to deal with with without forcing myself into the hornet’s nest that is the debate about the state of our school system. But I did at some point hope that, for my own basic edification, someone around these parts would publish a ‘New Orleans School System For Dummies’ primer. I found ‘The Garden Path’ to be in many ways that book.
The story begins with Perry’s character Dr. Boyd being taken on a tour of the city by his prospective employer Dean Morris. They stop to visit a class in one of the worst performing high schools in the city where he is introduced as ‘Doctor’ only to be ridiculed by a giggling student who asserts, “You aint no doctor!” which causes the entire class to erupt in howling laughter. After an insufferably long humiliating pause, Dr. Boyd clears his throat, looks the student squarely in the eyes and says, “If you can’t see me as a doctor, you certainly can’t see yourself as one.” He then retrieves his graduation robe from the trunk of his car and has the entire class try on the robe, telling each one ‘You can be a doctor too one day.’ It’s a pivotal moment, one that informs Dr. Boyd’s - and the author’s - decision to move to New Orleans.
Dr. Boyd’s character grows exceedingly critical of what he sees as charter schools inability to fulfill its ‘pioneering’ status, defaulting instead to teaching children to follow rote rules. “...disenfranchised folks needed to question and raise their voices. What I saw was that reformers wanted students to fear authority instead of understand it. Understanding what happened after Hurricane Katrina would make one want to ‘holla’. Given a chance to create a new music, I was hearing the same old dirge — poor kids need to be controlled.” He later laments: “I want them to courageously ask questions. I don’t think we’re getting that in this reform.”
The also book captures the polarization between the two camps of New Orleans educational leaders - the charter school reformists and traditional public school leaders - and the tendency of both sides to cling unrelentingly to their belief systems, refusing to dialogue or find compromise, practically caricaturish in their judgement and hostility toward the other system. Perry’s book also takes a swipe at institutional policies like the LEAP test through his main character Loren, class president of the ninth grade, who organizes a coup by persuading his academically achieving classmates to refuse to take the test. Perry asserts, “We’re missing the lesson because we’re so ensconced in this testing culture, building an education system around it and kids are missing the bigger picture.”
At times, the book moves too slow, pondering on the details of the student’s lives in ways that don’t advance the storyline — for example taking six pages to chronicle Katura’s preparation for her 9th grade formal. The fire burns down one of the controversial schools that’s about to be taken over but the story thread drops off and we don’t learn anything more about the incidence. Also, the book at times tends to rely too heavily on dialogue instead of action and character development.
But what The Garden Path does very well is makes compelling arguments through its characters for complex issues. For example, the author challenges the reformist’s position that employees of the pre-Katrina public school system are responsible for generations of children not getting educated which in turn justified the firing of 7,500 teachers and the creation a new system of charter schools which employs mostly new, temporary human capital. He goes so far as to make one of the most salient arguments I’ve heard yet for why the livelihood of former school system employees is irrevocably tethered to the current education opportunities of our children. “...wasn’t it true that unemployment also contributed to people being stranded at the Superdome? How is firing locals and hiring people who won’t stay long going to change anything in the long run?”
Having grappled myself with a general negative opinion towards pre-Katrina education leadership, I asked Perry during his book reading Q&A to disprove my bias. “Clearly we had bad teachers here,” he admits. “We need new blood to come in and help, to innovate. At some point though change must help the local community. If we can’t produce teachers, what really we doing? I don’t wanna build a system where people come in, stay for a couple of years, and take what they know with them when they leave. The money we spend on bringing outside program we could easily build adult education programs. We need to be able to build the capacity of locals. You can’t delete people. And coming in with the intention of leaving is not a commitment. So ethically, I’d say we’re on the lower end of good.”
To prove his assertion, Perry says the UNO charter schools he oversees are partnering with Delgado to offer adult education classes at company worksites like Harrah’s so adults can take classes without public scrutiny, “where they aren’t embarrassed,” says Perry.
In ‘The Garden Path’ the line between fact and fiction, caricatures and real life players, is blurred to say the least. But the confounding odyssey that is the New Orleans public school system it such that one really needn’t stray far from the truth to tell a compelling story about this city’s great experiment in education reform. If you’e looking for a narrative about the local school system that captures many of the opinions, arguments, triumphs and challenges surrounding the new reform, you can benefit from reading this chronicle.
The Garden Path is part one of a three part book series. The second book, due out later this year, will deal with 11-12th graders; the third will deal with students in their first year in college.