Ashana Bigard: An Insider’s View of Post-Katrina New Orleans Public Education
On January 14 and 15, 2016, renowned education blogger and ed reform podcaster extraordinaire, Jennifer Berkshire, visited me during her time in town to conduct some interviews in New Orleans.
In the course of her meetings, she ended up with an umbrella that was not hers and which needed to be returned to New Orleans parent activist, Ashana Bigard.
So, I met Ashana for lunch on Monday, January 18, 2016– Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday– to return said umbrella. And as it turns out, I had the great fortune and pleasure to interview Ashana for 90 minutes on her experiences with the New Orleans schools post-Katrina.
I transcribed the entire interview (barring small talk). The transcript is 27 pages long and can be accessed here: Ashana Bigard 01-18-16.
Our conversation takes a number of interesting turns. Those with a particular interest in the nuances of navigating post-Katrina public education in New Orleans would do well to read the entire exchange. However, for the purposes of this post, I will highlight a few choice excerpts.
First, a word about Ashana:
Ashana Bigard is at least a fifth-generation New Orleans native and a product of the New Orleans public school system. Bigard did drop out of high school; the lure of ready cash from working in tourism prompted her to drop out in her senior year (“I wasn’t that interested in school; I was interested in making money.”)
Bigard realized the need to “drop back in,” so to speak, which involved her attending Job Corps and earning her GED and then attend Delgado Community College and the Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO), where she earned her degree in early childhood education.
Pre-Katrina, Bigard worked as a parent advocate with Agenda for Children. She is currently a fellow with The Progressive and also works as a trainer and consultant for organizations wishing to serve the people of New Orleans. For more information, visit her website at ashanabigard.com.
And now, for some excerpts from our interview:
M: Okay. So, you’re saying that when teachers did, when New Orleans teachers did get hired, they were channeled toward “turnaround schools”?
M: So… they were set up [for failure]?
A: They were set up because what would happen ultimately is, I’ll use Walter L. Cohen. One of my students over there, she was a Walter L. Cohen student. So, like Walter L. Cohen, you had a whole bunch of teachers there, and they were there, working with the students. And when they first gave the kids a test, of course, they scored very low because they were just coming back [to the city after Katrina]; they were traumatized. A lot of them had been through who knows what. Then they turned Cohen into a dumping school, so all of the schools that didn’t want certain kids, so a lot of the turnaround schools are the traditional schools (not charters) and as traditional schools, were dumping schools.
M: Okay. So, how were kids sent to Cohen? How was that working, that Cohen became a dumping ground? What was happening?
A: Well, children were suspended, expelled, Recovery School District now ran the majority of the schools; so, they decided which kids went to which school. And so, because they wanted to “turn Cohen around,” which ultimately is a land grab because Cohen is right next to a very wealthy neighborhood, and this is a school for poor, black children, like 99.9 percent African American children who were poor. And like I was saying, 80 to 90 percent on free and reduced lunch.
And so, they were sending kids there from all over, and Cohen had like a 15…
M: Who was sending the kids? RSD, the state?
A: Recovery School District. But Cohen had growth, so they grew, I want to say, from like a 14 to a 17within almost a two-year span. But it didn’t matter because they were turning it, it became a turnaround school. So, they fired that first round of teachers the very next year, then they gave them new teachers, and the principal was allowed to hire them, who was a black principal who had been there before [the storm]. He was always trying to hire local teachers. And then, they fired those teachers. So, they fired teachers every year almost consistently. … They consistently fired teachers, which, of course, threw the children off of their, it threw them off because they would build relationships with teachers that would [get fired].
M: So, the students have come back from the storm after being traumatized, and, like, for two years in a row, the teachers are fired? Like they get teachers; those teachers are fired. They get more teachers; those teachers are fired?
A: Right. And it’s not the principal. It’s Recovery School District making those decisions.
The third year, they did is six weeks before senior finals. And that’s when you’ll hear about the young people protesting. (Note: For info on a later protest, read here. Also, view here: VIDEO: 2012 RSD Students Protesting)
M: Six weeks before finals, they fired the teachers?
M: So, are you telling me that Ben Kleban, he benefited from the publicity of Cohen’s growth without having been there?
A: Right. Also, he didn’t want to take those kids [who attended Walter L. Cohen]. He starter a ninth-grade school in the Cohen building. And, he wouldn’t take, even though it was a takeover school, [and he was taking over supposedly] to help turn around the failing grade, he started at ninth grade.
M: It was a co-located school? Or he got rid of all of those kids?
A: No. They [the original Cohen] stopped taking 9th grade, [and] he started doing 9th grade in the school, and he told the other kids, the 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders that they were not allowed on the second floor.
M: It was like a school within a school?
M: He started his own Cohen College Prep with the 9th grade [on the second floor and kept the students separated] by grade level?
A: But they [the 9th graders] were allowed on the bottom floor [with the 10th through 12th], which got really tricky because, after that—you remember when [Hurricane] Rita happened, right?
A: So, they had a lot of damage to the cafeteria. So what he did was he fixed up half of the cafeteria, and he put tape down the middle. They painted, put up new ceiling tiles, fixed the walls on half of the cafeteria. The other half of the cafeteria had exposed wiring, no ceiling panels. The 9th grade that he had sat on the fixed side. …
And further along in our interview:
M: Now, I just made a comment about making it look good. Do you think that was the motivation?
A: Oh, I definitely think that was the motivation because all of the sudden I’ve got pictures of children at the school, and this is a school, when I walk through the school, I said, I appreciate the fact that it has changed, and it looks a lot better. … When I walked through [near the time of the Katrina anniversary], it was so different. The children had recess, and they had talking lunches—because they used to be a school that I would show everybody ]as an example of] about how horrible [post-Katrina RSD] schools were because it was a pre-K [to] sixth grade school, and they used to have no recess and quiet lunch. And they had no books.
M: Okay. So, you would show that off, and you’re saying that around the Katrina anniversary, they made that look better?
A: Oh, yeah. And the principal told me she was ordering books for the kids, and I was like, “I am so excited that,” that excites me.
M: Was that, did they only, did it happen in all of the schools, or was that just a showcase school?
A: That was a showcase school. You know, we have a handful of showcase schools. We have Bricolage, Morris Jeff; now they have College Prep Sylvanie Williams. They show off Green’s edible garden. That’s one of the ones that Jay Altman shows off. But, a lot of these schools, if you look at their suspension rates, they’ve maybe gone down from like 60 percent to like 40 or 30. But I know for a fact that a lot of their suspension rates have gone down because they’re not reporting all of their suspensions. Because when they send kids home for the day, they don’t count that as a suspension, and that is a suspension.
M: So, if they’re just going home for that day, we’re not calling that a suspension anymore? How do you know that?
A: I know it because when I was advocating, working closely with Walter L. Cohen and Cohen College Prep, and one of the days when I was advocating for the kids in the other school, they had about 60 children with no ties… and I’m walking, and I just see this bunch of kids walking early in the day, so I stopped them, and I [asked], “What’s going on? Where are you going?” And they said, “Home for the day.” And I said, “Where is your paperwork?”, you know, “Where is your paperwork?” And they said, “We don’t have any.”
I said, “That’s a problem because if a truancy officer stops you and you don’t have paperwork, you could get picked up for truancy.”
M: And they’re walking in a herd, huh? They’re just a whole group, walking, without ties on.
A: Right. And then, I talked to the store owner who runs a store called the Brown Derby across the street from Cohen College Prep. He said that that happens a lot—they’ll be groups of kids.
M: But it doesn’t count as a suspension if I don’t write it up.
And still another conversational turn:
M: So, let me see if I am understanding this dynamic: The poorest black folk could not come back.
M: Because they didn’t have projects to live in, and they couldn’t afford the housing.
M: But those who could afford to come back are making less money.
A: That’s right.
M: Okay. Is it because the city is becoming a white transplant city?
A: It is. It is. And if you go look at City Hall and any of these [governmental] places, the majority of the people in managerial/supervisory positions are 30.
M: Is that because New Orleans didn’t have the people come back to fill those positions?
A: No, that’s, and see, that’s another myth that’s been perpetuated because I know so many people just that I know personally who have masters degrees and PhDs [and] who are in this city (New Orleans) actively looking for work. I know at least two PhDs right now who do not have a job. There are a lot of people with higher-level degrees.
M: And when you say, “two PhDs,” you’re talking native New Orleaneans? Black, native New Orleaneans?
A: Yes. Black, native New Orleaneans with PhDs. And a third one I know, he’s working at the library.
M: So, underutilized talent?
A: Underutilized, underemployed. Underemployed. We have brilliant people who are wonderful at what they do, and they’re not even looked at. And I know for a fact, some of these positions have been recruiting people—but they recruit people up North. They do not recruit people down South.
M: Those who are running schools or running programs here (New Orleans) are recruiting from their own, so to speak? From up North?
A: Right. From up North. And, so you have, and Teach for America is another big one because they bring in people down to teach in the schools, but that is just a stepping stone to other positions. Because most of them…
M: So, they stay, and the go work at City Hall, in other jobs?
A: Right. Most of them do not stay in teaching. And they know that.
A final word:
M: Is there anything about the RSD that is successful?
A: Um, they’re successful in colonizing our city. They did—successfully. And, all it was, was—and I quote this from Hannah, who is a successful graduate from the Teach for America program—that this is only new-age colonization, you know. And I’m like yes, this has been done before. They had done it with Native Americans. They came to tame the savages. That’s it. …
Our entire 27-page exchange is well worth the read, especially if you live in a city that considers New Orleans a model to be emulated.