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John McDonogh High School Building Finally Under Renovation, School Itself Not Returning

July 7, 2018

On July 06, 2018, I drove past John McDonogh High School, and, to my surprise, saw that it is being renovated.


McDonogh High School Building, July 06, 2018


McDonogh was one of several New Orleans public school buildings that incurred minor damage from Hurricane Katrina. It is located in a neighborhood on a ridge (Esplanade Ridge). It could have reopened in the weeks after the storm and served the New Orleans families who were able to return. However, by then, most New Orleans schools were taken over by the state; the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) no longer had jurisdiction over McDonogh, and those running the state-takeover Recovery School District (RSD) did not properly prepare McDonogh for its March 2006 opening.

(I later learned that McDonogh High had an asbestos problem, which should have prompted Orleans Parish to close it years ago, or the state to do so once it assumed control of the school in 2005. However, state shenanigans with the McDonogh community had nothing to do with saving children from asbestos exposure.)

The community complained to the state board (BESE), but it was clear that the state was inept at directly operating a school district. Former McDonogh principal (1990 -1996), Raynard Sanders, notes as much in his book, The Coup D’etat of the New Orleans Public Schools:

The lack of planning and operational expertise of RSD was glaring. It was clear within days after opening up schools in New Orleans the state-run RSD was clueless after boasting for several months on how they were going to turn around the failing and poorly managed schools in New Orleans. In addition to the lack of experience the RSD was part of the Louisiana Department of Education… basically a compliance agency and had no experience in running schools. Additionally the state didn’t have in place any policy that specifically addressed the operational needs of managing a school. With that RSD couldn’t buy water fountains at John McDonogh because purchases over $500 had to go to the state bid process. Students at John McDonogh attended school for weeks without drinking water. …

[In 2007] RSD continued its mismanage of John McDonogh as it became a dumping school for unwanted students from charter schools and other RSD high schools… never addressing building needs.

One of the teachers, Laura Burns, noted that on “the day I left, they were trying to put 55 desks in my classroom….” …

John McDonogh was not a priority; the RSD clearly had no interests in the students or concerns for school’s community from the day it reopened in 2006.

During Louisiana state superintendent John White’s very brief stint as RSD superintendent (less than a year), he told the McDonogh community at an October 2011 community meeting that his supporting McDonogh renovation depended upon their raising test scores.

At the time, the school facility suffered from serious neglect and other issues that posed an obvious health threat to its students, including busted, boarded windows (from Katrina?), rotting wood, the presence of vermin, and, as previously mentioned, asbestos.

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McDonogh High, 2011

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McDonogh High, 2011

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McDonogh High, 2011

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McDonogh High floor, rotting and with feces from vermin, 2011

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McDonogh High, asbestos, 2011

Still, RSD housed students in this building, and White chose test scores over immediate and certain renovation of the McDonogh building.

Pause and think about that.

In February 2012, White told ed reformer Rick Hess that Los Angeles charter operator, Steve Barr, was going to be “at the table” with McDonogh teachers to shape McDonogh into a “compelling vision.” From the Hess-White interview:

Rick Hess: Post-Katrina, there were concerns about outsiders invading New Orleans schooling. There have been intense racial politics. How did you negotiate that during your time at the RSD, and how does that shape your approach going forward?

John White: It’s extremely important as a leader to never give up on your ideals. But on the other hand, never give up on respecting everyone at the table. That gives you a baseline of credibility off of which to operate.

RH: Can you offer an example of how you do this?

JW: Yes, at John McDonogh High School. When I first came to New Orleans, the word on the Street was we were going to shut down the building of that 100-year-old high school. And now we’ve announced that we are spending $35 million to renovate it. Steve Barr [founder of Green Dot Public Schools] and teachers now are going to take over the school’s management…By staying at the table, by sitting through the discussion, by always insisting that this can be a college and career school, we had a compelling vision that attracted great partners, and are in a position to turn one of the lowest performing high schools in the country into a real beacon for change.

Two years passed, and no McDonogh renovation. In 2014, Barr bailed on McDonogh– but not before he contracted with Oprah Winfrey to exploit the McDonogh High community in a sensationalized, six-episode “poverty porn,” Blackboard Wars.

There was no follow-up interview from White on the issue.

Pos-Barr, McDonogh sat for the next several years, boarded up and rotting in a New Orleans neighborhood that did not flood during Katrina.

And now– in 2018– a renovation, supposedly using $1.8M in FEMA money. But the renovated school will not return as John McDonogh High School.

Since 2015, RSD has been saying that the charter school, Bricolage Academy, will end up in the McDonogh High building.

And the John McDonogh High School community?

It appears that once again, they have been slighted— a reality-based narrative that holds no prominent place in the national sale of the marvels of New Orleans-post-Katrina-state-takeover-charter-conversion Miracle.



Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

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