I spent my first years of public school in the Fulton County Public School System in Atlanta, Ga. I attended the East Lake Elementary School -- located just outside the East Lake Meadows Housing Development -- where 36 second graders shared an overcrowded classroom and just one teacher. My school was 100 percent African-American, and the vast majority of the students came from poor or working-class families. Physically, the school was decrepit.
Even though I was a young child, I can still remember the anger that overflowed on so many levels -- anger that found its way in the form of abusive language from teachers to students and vice versa, as well as in the constant fights that occurred between students. One day, in an effort for attention that was mixed with frustration and boredom, I lashed out at a teacher with a chair. I was 8 years old. Given the shootings and other horrible crimes that currently occur on school campuses, my act today might unfortunately not be seen as a big deal. However, in 1980, throwing a chair at a teacher got me in a world of trouble. I never set foot in East Lake Elementary School again.
From there I found my way to the DeKalb County Public School System and the Chapel Hill Elementary School. Because of my past record, there was some consternation regarding my academic and behavioral abilities. I was initially placed in classes with students with 'special needs' -- and other misnomers for kids believed to be troublemakers or discipline problems.
Up to this point, I would say my experience is similar to many African-American students in the Orleans Parish school system. I can recognize that my aggressive behavior had its roots in some angst but was essentially boredom, frustration and striving for attention in the wrong manner. Many children in Orleans Parish know those feelings. In addition, they are exposed to violence and sex in doses that are unhealthy for adults, let alone for minds and psyches that are still developing.
After a few weeks and continued deterioration of my behavior, my mother requested school officials to give me a series of aptitude tests. It was discovered that I was 'gifted,' and I was immediately moved to a classroom with approximately 20 or so students. We were instructed by both a teacher and a teacher's aide.
From there, my educational experiences included the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Theology, and Louisiana State University/Charity Hospital. The more I reflect on what could have gone wrong and how I could have been trapped in a world of inadequate resources and low expectations, the more I am concerned about how we create schools like the proposed Lusher High School.
I did not change. My mind, my psyche and my upbringing stayed the same as I moved from East Lake Elementary to Chapel Hill Elementary. What did change -- in a matter of months -- was the size of my classes, the level of academic expectations, the amount of attention and some social norms. If I can go from East Lake Elementary and what it stood for to Harvard Medical School, why shouldn't I believe that there are hundreds or possibly thousands of students in Orleans Parish who will not do the same if given the same opportunity? Specifically, how do we create academically excellent schools and offer real opportunities to excel to myriad children languishing in poor schools?
As an individual assigned to the 'opposed' side of this discussion about the proposed Lusher High School, I believe it is important to state very clearly that I am not against the formation of any new academically excellent schools. However, what I am 'against' are unfair and discriminatory practices that leave large numbers of children locked out of opportunities that they deserve.
Unfortunately, most people are not aware of how former school Superintendent Anthony Amato carried out his plans to open Lusher High School, and how he created several problems without an adequate vision to address them. For example, many parents of Wright Middle School were not aware that the school was going to close a year earlier than what had been stated in Amato's Renaissance Plan. There had been no formal communication from the school system to the parents of Wright and New Tech High students regarding plans for the upcoming school year. Many parents and members of the community became aware of the plans regarding Lusher High School only when inspections by a group representing the interests of Lusher High School disrupted LEAP tutoring at Wright. This event struck me as particularly unacceptable and prompted my own involvement in this matter.
In addition, the actual planning around the new Lusher High School did not comply with the Orleans school system's own policies regarding City Wide Access Schools (CWAS) or the Office of Civil Rights Voluntary Agreement with the school system. These policies, in part, require that the application be available on the school system's Web site as well as at all other CWAS schools. Prior to March 10, there was no mention on the school system's Web site of an application to Lusher High School. If a parent picked up a CWAS application at any school other than Lusher Extension, there was no mention of an upcoming Lusher High School ninth-grade class. In fact, the actual application from Lusher Extension had the ninth grade penciled in -- further eroding the belief that the school system was trying to create transparent and fair access to Lusher High School.
Most importantly, on March 9, at a community meeting that was recorded, Amato publicly admitted the Lusher High School application process was flawed. He stated that the system went about it incorrectly. To my great disappointment, he didn't decide to start the process over. Rather, he only offered to extend the CWAS deadline until April 1. He stated that this would allow people to apply for whatever slots were left over, because anyone who had been accepted under the flawed system would retain their spot.
Is this equality and fairness? To create a new public school without providing the entire school system a real and equitable opportunity to attend the school? To have no official acknowledgement that the school was being opened and without school board approval or an appropriate budget? If the school system has policies to ensure reasonable and equitable access, how does the same school system knowingly dismiss the process because of whom the school is being created for?
There are many other problems around the Wright Middle School/Lusher High School debacle. Our opposition was not to the formation of a new Lusher High School, but to a process that unfairly and unethically limited access to what the school had to offer. In a city with a largely African-American and economically depressed population, we should be concerned first with educating from the bottom up, with creating a paradigm and approach that will educate those students who historically have been undereducated and denied adequate resources.
A poor school system limits job growth and economic expansion, severely limiting access to the middle class in New Orleans. Given the history and depth of this problem, I am becoming convinced that the number of middle-class students needed to reach the 'tipping point' to improve the school system overall cannot be reached by simply importing them. I would agree with the idea of bringing in high-achieving/middle-class/white students to the school system and wanting to retain as many academically excellent students as possible. But first we must address the reality: our current models for academic achievement in Orleans Parish (such as Lusher and Ben Franklin) are demographically impossible to achieve across the entire school system. Even if the system were to experience what some have called a 'brain drain' -- in which large numbers of white or middle-class students would leave the school system -- you would still have the vast majority of the 62,000 students left to educate.
Our focus should be on the 'brain drain' at the other end of the spectrum: the children who drop out, flunk out, get pushed out or simply get the message they cannot achieve and stop trying. These young lives are the ones who find their way into the streets and contribute to a whole host of ills that we pay for every day. The school system has to be a place where we acknowledge and cultivate the inherent gifts and talents of all our children. Then New Orleans Public Schools will be recognized as a place of learning and academic excellence for all children regardless of class or race. The transformation of the entire school system will take years of hard work from a competent and responsive superintendent, a vigilant and ethical school board, and local citizens who are tired of bearing witness to children marching into a destiny of failure. Ultimately, we have the power and resources to provide a bright future for all of our children. We need to do things the right way -- with a moral center and clear vision -- for our city to one day realize the full potential of all its citizens.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The Rev. Anthony L. Mitchell, M.D., is an associate minister at St. Thomas Missionary Baptist Church, where the Rev. B.J. Maxon is the pastor. Mitchell is also currently serving as a major in the United States Air Force and works as an emergency medicine physician at Keesler Medical Center in Biloxi, Miss.