(Photo credit: Billy Metcalf Photography)
Substantial academic progress has been real across New Orleans. I see it in classrooms at schools and in my time with students, parents, and educators. Yet the challenges we face in New Orleans public schools are complex and nuanced; they defy easy descriptions or pronouncements. So when I read Jordan Flaherty’s recent piece, “New Orleans Teachers and Students Wrestle With Racial Tension,” I hoped it might touch on some of the concerns I’ve had on my mind: big questions about the past and present of our schools, how they intersect with our city’s complex history or race and class, and how they’ll impact our shared future.
What I found was something that didn’t capture the complexity we’re all grappling with as we work to provide our students with a life-changing education that maintains a high bar for academic rigor and meaningful pathways to opportunity and at its core nurtures and supports who they are and where they’re coming from. While the article sheds light on a crucial challenge before us in New Orleans schools, it also perpetuates a false dichotomy between a culturally idyllic view of the past and a blindly academically focused present.
Teach For America began partnering with New Orleans schools in 1990 and I’ve lived in Louisiana most of my adult life, arriving as a Teach For America corps member fourteen years ago—many years before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In the difficult days that followed Katrina, as a city we started over together to try and build a system that worked better for the kids it served. Since then, we’ve seen both strides and setbacks. Today, we continue to struggle to make it such that zip code, race, and income bracket don’t determine a child’s future. But we’re also seeing signs of hope and progress. Student achievement and graduation rates have improved dramatically and we have reduced the percentage of kids trapped in a failing school from 65 percent to 5 percent. These improvements have been earned through the sweat and effort of parents, kids, principals, community members, and teachers. They should not be dismissed.
We also can’t dismiss the setbacks. As we’ve experienced so much change in our schools over the past decade, we’ve seen the demographics of our teaching force shift. As a result, fewer of our majority African American students can look to the front of the classroom and see a teacher who looks like them. This is a serious and pressing problem, one which Teach For America regards as pivotal not because of the past it represents but because of the present and future benefits it provides to our students. While we know great teachers come from all backgrounds, we also know that teachers who share the backgrounds of their students have the potential for a profound additional impact. Over the last three years, we’ve increased the number of black teachers in our corps three-fold, and more than a third of our current corps members are teachers of color. We have a long way to go but we believe we’re on the right track.
The divisive argument that people working in education must be about student achievement or they must be about preserving traditions obscures the fact that we can achieve both and takes vital time and energy away from our work on actually preparing our students for academic success and life beyond—and there is substantially more work to do. Unproductive debates hinged on false choices between past and present and not acknowledging the myriad contributions of both past and present hold all of us back from creating new and necessary solutions to the real challenges our children face today and tomorrow. For the sake of all our children’s futures, we must all move forward.
During my days as a fourth-grade teacher in Baton Rouge and today as Teach For America’s executive director in the Greater New Orleans region and member of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, I’ve seen the powerful moments of learning that come from deep and meaningful human connection. That can happen profoundly among teachers and students who share aspects of their background and across lines of difference. As we strive to provide our children of color facing the challenges of poverty with more teachers who look like them, we can also strive to empower all teachers to build the relationships with their students that inspire them to reach for the future they dream of.