When hundreds of citizens show up at a meeting to raise hell with a public body, it’s usually a healthy sign that people are engaged and government accountability is not dead. But the sound and fury that peppered last week’s meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education makes one wonder.
At issue was the recommendation by state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek to assume management of 10 failing public schools in East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes. They will join 71 other schools, mostly in New Orleans, that were moved into the Recovery School District in the past three years.
Almost all attending the BESE meeting were there to protest the takeover, some by heckling Pastorek. They also cheered loudly for points made by East Baton Rouge School System Superintendent Charlotte Placide, despite the schools she and her staff have run failed to meet minimum—very minimum—academic standards for four straight years.
From the reaction of the crowd, what one wonders is: Where were they and their wrath when the parish school board last met? Or their Parent-Teacher Association?
No doubt, many of the protesters are parents who are involved in their children’s education. But there are many other parents who show little interest in what goes on at their children’s school or seeing to it that their kids do their homework.
That so many students in failing schools come from impoverished and/or dysfunctional families, however, does not let the principals, school boards and central office administrators off the hook. Despite their efforts, what they have been doing has not been working. After four straight years of failure—for some schools, decades—they are not the ones who deserve a second chance. The kids do.
Many of the current Recovery School District schools have shown significant improvement in test scores, while some still struggle. Yet takeover opponents seem to think the RSD, in only its third year, should prove itself more, while Baton Rouge and Shreveport systems should get the benefit of the doubt—when little doubt remains.
Some speakers at the BESE meeting, describing themselves as “community activists,” demanded that the community be allowed to run its own schools. If they want to see real community activists, they should visit any of the dozens of RSD campuses in New Orleans now being run as charter schools. There, parents and teachers—and even community volunteers—devise curricula and make management decisions formerly made by central office bureaucrats. Pastorek plans for eight of the 10 schools being taken over to become charters.
Such did not impress BESE member Louella Givens of New Orleans. She still hasn’t gotten over the 2006 transfer of schools there, which she called “repulsive” and told the Baton Rouge protesters, “Welcome to my nightmare.”
Amazing what she finds repulsive: well-maintained schools where there is a semblance of order and a chance for learning. What does she call the pre-Katrina dilapidated buildings, the chaotic classrooms and the dozens of system employees who were convicted of looting the system? The good ol’ days?
Besides wounded pride, if one can put a price on a local school board’s loss of control, it comes to $3,850. That’s the amount the state pays each school district per pupil, which goes to the RSD when the state takes control. One wonders if that wasn’t the real motivation behind Ms. Placide’s call for public protest.
BESE’s action demonstrates that failing schools are no longer exclusive to New Orleans. The 10 taken over could eventually be joined by 23 more in Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Shreveport and a half-dozen rural parishes that have been placed under state supervision while remaining under local control, for now.
The fate of those schools, like those in New Orleans, should be of major concern statewide. An average student can survive a mediocre school and still do well in college and life. But a struggling student in a failing school is one step away from being a dropout, and then a burden—if not a danger—to society.
Students in schools that have failed should not be told to be more patient with the administrators who have let them down. They deserve a new, intensive and sustained approach, and not after four more years.