Making the Case for (Truly) Integrated Public Schools in New Orleans, continued

by Julie Lause, co-founder of Crescent City Schools and the Principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School

Have you read Part One of Julie’s blog post? Click here to catch up.

Part Two: Looking Ahead and Some Ideas of How To Get There

So how do we find more seats in public schools for all the middle class families who want them while still maintaining equity? More importantly, how can we capitalize on the incredible gains in achievement and the unprecedented middle class interest in public schools to build a system of open-enrollment schools where our white and black children go to school together?

One effective strategy offered by the district is opening more seats in high-quality schools. This past year, several in-demand schools (on the “acceptable” list) expanded or opened more seats. This is a great option and it should continue.

But let’s be realistic: there are 6,000 kids in K-8 schools like Bricolage, Lycee, and Morris Jeff, schools that were built to be deliberately diverse and attract middle class parents.

There are 26,000 students in K-8 schools like the one I lead: formerly failing schools placed in the RSD in 2005 and have since improved and grown. We are not going to get to an integrated school system by opening up more spots at “acceptable” schools. And even if we meet the seat demands of the middle class, what about the 26,000 kids in schools of concentrated poverty like mine? Is integration only for the middle class?

My school is Harriet Tubman Charter School which was a failing school in 2011 when our organization, Crescent City Schools, took it over. In two years we took it from an F to a C, it has been in the top growth schools in the city since 2011, and we expanded its school population from 175 students to now nearly 1,000 students across two campuses.

What I want to offer to middle class parents: if you want to enter the public school system, take a chance on my school.

A Proposal

I know my school might not look like it’s for you. It might not look like the public school you went to, and it might not be as diverse or have as many kids matching the ethnicity of your child. More than 90% of the kids in my school are poor, and 97% of them are non-white.

This fact does not mean that my school does not serve all kids well. This fact is an outcome of the history of our city, not the quality of the school or the ability we have to serve all kids.

If you’re middle class and you’re thinking about public school, here’s how I want you to think about it:

  • Our school serves about 25% students with special needs. We have students with physical, medical, emotional, and learning disabilities, and we have a program that deeply differentiates for every individual kids’ needs.
  • We also have a gifted program that meets the needs of our learners at the top of the achievement spectrum.
  • The number of students scoring Mastery or Advanced on the LEAP has gone up at our school from 5% in 2011 to about 30% last year, so the academic program we have in place is serving the needs of our gifted and advanced students, but also pushing more students into that category.
  • Our school, alongside many selective-admissions schools, received an A for growth last year. We also had the distinction of being honored as a Top Gains School AND an Equity Honoree, which means that growth is a feature of our school no matter the level. It also means that our students in poverty, with special needs, and learning English, are learning at the same level as their peers. This is a place where everyone thrives.

My school is a “regular” public school. We take all kids and we serve all kids well. I want all middle class parents who are interested in public education to consider that this school, serving about a third of our students at each of the top, middle, and lower levels of achievement, is what a regular public school looks like.

Our staff are incredible. Most of them have worked here five or more years and are career educators. We have sports, afterschool activities, a drumline, middle school dances, and a leadership council. Our K–2 curriculum is an innovative combined-grade Montessori program that our parents, teachers, and students love. We take steps to ensure that students of a particular race are not alone in a classroom if they are in the minority at our school. We are responsive to parent phone calls and requests. An increasing number of our students are actually students of our staff members. We recently moved back into a renovated building and are building a second building to open next year. We’re not perfect, but our parents are loyal and supportive advocates. This year, when we opened up 450 new seats, we filled up immediately.

Does this sound like a school that your child can thrive in? I’m probably our school’s worst critic and biggest cheerleader all at the same time because I know what’s possible. I believe, in the process of growing our school, that we are showing what kind of an education is possible for our city. And even though I’m critical, my daughter will be attending this school next year.

There are dozens of other formerly failing schools just like Tubman all over the city (and in your neighborhood!) that you should consider.

I invite all parents, especially white parents, to consider what it would take for you to select a school based on the academic potential of the school and the strength of the staff and leadership, rather than on the racial demographics. I am inviting parents to consider walking down the block to that school in your neighborhood and asking to speak to the principal. Build a relationship with him/her and assess whether you can adjust your ideas about what a school should “look like” and imagine your child walking those halls.

Without white parents entering mostly black schools, we will never achieve true integration in our city. Integration and racial diversity is not just for the 6,000 kids in the “acceptable” schools, it’s also for the 26,000 black children in the district who go to schools of concentrated poverty (and by extension, segregated by race). What it will take is extraordinary efforts on the part of parents who have other choices. Not because you want to “help” public schools, not because you want to use your child as an extension of your political views, but because you want to be a part of a movement in this city to reintegrate public schools and — most especially — because you believe your child can thrive at a school like Tubman.

It will require white parents to reflect on their biases, their misunderstandings, and the experience of being in the minority. It will require trust between your family and a principal that your child will be looked after well. It will require occasionally being uncomfortable. But I think what it gets us in the long term is a truly equitable and integrated school system.

Isn’t that worth being uncomfortable?


Additional Resources

If you’re interested in school desegregation, so are tons of other parents! Here are few articles that tackle this subject around the country and here at home in New Orleans:

Here’s My Challenge to White Parents this School Year asks white parents to do more to think about equity in schools.

What White Parents Can Do to Desegregate Schools details the efforts white parents can take to help make schools more integrated.

Does Integration Still Matter in Public Schools? is a Frontline piece trying to determine if integration is a goal we should still pursue.

School Choice and Segregation posits that offering school choice is not enough to achieve the goal of desegregation.

If you are interested in visiting Harriet Tubman Charter School or want to be a part of a monthly study group for white parents on school integration in New Orleans, please contact Principal Julie Lause at jlause@crescentcityschools.org.