Investigating New Orleans’ Broken School System from the Inside-Out

Story by Lana Lawson, Sophomore at International High School

Back in July I attended the New Beginnings School Foundation meeting about the controversy of Kennedy High School editing students’ scores. I walked in and grabbed a chair and a bag of popcorn off of the snack table, expecting a bit of a spectacle. 

But looking around, there were very few people. I came away confused about why there wasn’t a large crowd. For issues as fraught and consequential to a school as grade-fixing and the suspension of a school’s charter, why weren’t more people involved?

I had the idea to write about Louisiana’s education system as a kind of embedded journalism project. I’m a sophomore in high school and felt I had a right to know what happens behind the scenes of the powers that shape my education. So I decided to talk to three New Orleans-based specialists in education with three different perspectives on charter schools, which, as of this year, make up the entirety of Orleans Parish schools.

Although many things the specialists had to say were different, they were at least on the same page about the basics: the need for more funding and the need to strive harder to improve education quality by giving students adequate support from teachers, administrators, and community members alike. 

Ashana Bigard, a member of Erase the Board and advocate for good quality education, said that one big issue with charter schools is that they aren’t held to the same standards as traditional public schools—that they lack accountability and oversight. She feels that in order to improve schools we must hire qualified teachers and treat kids like human beings. 

She also stated that funding should be spent to meet the needs of the children by buying more books and investing in libraries and reading specialists to ensure that students are reading on grade level. “What our students need, the system is providing the exact opposite,” Bigard said.

Kate Mehok, who is the founder and CEO of Crescent City Schools, believes that charter schools are already striving for what’s best for their students, but that, just like all schools, there is room for improvement.

“Schools that have succeeded have really strong leadership and a really strong relationship with the school,” Mehok said. “No school succeeds without a strong leadership like the principal and administration. If all those people are working together towards the same initiative vision, regardless of what kind of school you are, those are the schools that are successful in New Orleans.”

She also stated that students should be held accountable too; they should commit to a school instead of constantly switching. Mehok believes the most important thing that schools should spend funding on is supplies for students who can’t afford them. She feels that a school’s top priorities should be making sure students and families are invested in the idea of the school. Mehok emphasized that teachers should feel supported, especially by always addressing their concerns.

Lona Hankins, who works with the Recovery School District helping to rebuild the public school physical infrastructure, said that the problem with education in New Orleans isn’t so much the charter schools but the overall lack of quality in the New Orleans education system.

Despite that, Hankins said that turning New Orleans all charter was a national political game that was grounded in the powers-that-be mostly looking out for their own growth, as opposed to what was in the best interest of children.

“This is one thing that I do like about the charter system:” Hankins said. “I like that the charter has the autonomy to figure out what the children they serve need.” Hankins said that schools should be more of an individualizing experience—kid-focused, correlating education to what their interests are, not the state’s.

From my own perspective as a student, I’ve noticed a lot of problems with my own school. The first is infrastructure; the building is very old, small, and outdated. When opening the doors, they take up a good amount of space in the hall, causing a lot of traffic jams. This is compounded by the fact that we only have three minutes to go from class to class.

There are six bathrooms at school, but only three of them are for students: two bathrooms for the girls and one for the boys. The bathrooms at our school are small, with five stalls and minimal walking space and it gets crowded when seven students are in there at a time. At a school of 550 students, this is downright unacceptable.

One thing that many students dislike is that our school has never had a gym. This means that for physical education, we have to play in our courtyard (a parking lot) or walk to the park, Lafayette Square, where there’s not much to do besides walking or running.

Because I attend a charter school in New Orleans there are many rules that students find to be very arbitrary. For example students are not allowed to use the restroom during the first and last 30 minutes of each class. We take four classes every day with lunch and advisory in between and every class is 90 minutes long (lunch and advisory is 90 minutes long when combined) so we only have a 30 minute time period to use the bathroom for each class. When you gotta go, well, then you should go.

And then there’s the phone pouches. Since last year, they started using locking phone pouches to encourage students to be more engaged with school, but it didn’t go well. Students started breaking and losing the pouches so they stopped using them. This school year, they brought them back and have enforced a new rule that you must keep the pouch with you at all times and take it home.

These locking phone pouches are $15 to $30 each and they buy enough for every student, which costs the school between $6,000 and $12,000. This funding could’ve been spent on something more worthwhile, like fixing the ant problem on the 3rd floor, hiring a contractor to service the inconsistent air conditioning system, or things more worthwhile for the students.

This year the school decided to change the uniform students need to wear for school. The bundle was $200 which includes three shirts, shoes, a spirit shirt, a school sweatshirt, and an ID. What was not included in that bundle was the khaki pants and the clear or mesh backpack that students were required to have.

Many students had a problem purchasing these uniforms and in the first week, many of them didn’t have one or didn’t have certain pieces of it. Some parents felt like they weren’t given enough time after being told about the changes in the last week of July. Not to mention that many students could not afford them. 

My school, like many other charter schools, lacks consistency. New policies seem to come at random and without any proof of concept, so the school comes across as striving to be better without actually considering students. Before making these types of rules, schools and school boards officials should look into the overarching issues and focus on addressing those first, while also making it possible for the students, families, and staff to thrive.