Proponents of charter schools in New Orleans have a refrain: charters mean more choice, for kids and families. But most of the charter schools in New Orleans are based on a similar educational model — one marked by rigidity and a relentless focus on getting into college.
Some St. Claude area parents wanted a different model for their kids — something arts-based, with more of a racial, social and economic mix of students. To get it, they had to start their own school. Eve Abrams reports how the Homer Plessy Community School came to be.
Joseph Boselovic stands in the doorway of the Homer Plessy Community School, welcoming families as they dismount bikes, step off buses, and walk inside, where Ms. Harrison’s class leads the school in a song.
“Good morning Tyron! Latroy! LaCroy! How we doing? Just in time for morning meeting, guys! Let’s get inside. We’ve got Morning Meeting.”
Homer Plessy is a charter school under the Orleans Parish School Board. It shares a building with a Recovery District School, Arise Academy, in the former Frederick Douglass building.
“Honestly, it’s the generosity of ARISE and the principal there — it’s the reason we’re in Douglass,” says Ben McLeish, the president of Homer Plessy’s board of directors, with two kids in the school.
“He stuck his neck out for us, and went to bat for us," McLeish says. "If it weren’t for him, I don’t think we’d be in that building. I’m not sure where we’d be. Hopefully we’d be somewhere.”
That's because, as a brand new school, one thing Homer Plessy needed was a home.
It all started a few years ago. McLeish and other parents in the area knew what they wanted in a school, but it wasn’t being offered. During a series of meetings about a nearby school building under renovation, this group of parents got the impression that a decision had already been made for a KIPP school to move in. KIPP is a national franchise of charter schools.
Andrea Gabor teaches business journalism at Baruch College in New York. She describes KIPP’s education model this way:
“This no excuses, strict discipline, back to basics, to some extent repeat-and-response kinds of methods.”
Gabor’s recent article in Newsweek, “The Great Charter Tryout” reports on a year-long study of charter schools in New Orleans.
“You go to a place like New Orleans, you realize that not just KIPP, but the KIPP philosophy, dominates in many ways,” says Gabor. “So this is not a dig at KIPP per se, but you have to ask yourself the question: when you have a Charter Management Organization like KIPP, and a number of other charters and charter management organizations that borrow from KIPP playbook, how much choice is there really?”
That’s exactly how McLeish and other parents, who wanted an arts-based curriculum, felt.
“Okay, this is our neighborhood, our kids — did you ask us? There wasn’t any asking of us,” says McLeish. “It was just telling us this is what it was going to be.”
At that time, there were already two KIPP schools nearby, and also ARISE Academy, down the street, with a similar model to KIPP. The Recovery School District maintains there’s been an extensive public input process in deciding what kinds of schools to put in which buildings.
Karran Harper Royal is a New Orleans public school advocate. She says that process is inauthentic.
“When the charter school movement came to N.O., I thought that was going to be the opportunity to present a range of pedagogical options to parents, but what I started seeing was a replication of these no-excuses models,” says Royal. “Everybody now is a college prep charter school. I was expecting we would see a couple more Montessori-based schools. Why not bring in the Waldorf method? You know, why not really give us some options?”
Like, for instance, a community school. Which is what the St. Claude area parents wanted, and eventually decided to build themselves. Parent and board president Ben McLeish says they very intentionally named Homer Plessy Community School for the civil rights activist who was booted from a train car because of his skin color, just a few blocks from the school's current location. They wanted an inclusive school which honored this history.
“We always have said that we want the hallways of the school to reflect the sidewalks of the neighborhood,” says McLeish. “You know, it benefits everybody when it’s the weekend and there’s your teacher at the playground. Or that’s my classmate. Or I go to church with this person. And there’s a real sense of community, a natural, organic safety net.”
This vision of a community school in place, Plessy still had to get its charter approved. They had lots of help from other schools in the city with a strong parent voice — Audubon, Lusher, and especially Morris Jeff. But the process was long, and they got several “no’s” along the way.
It was “one minute no, the next minute yes. One minute no, the next minute yes,” says McLeish. “It just felt like I’m going to have a heart attack or aneurysm or something.”
The Orleans Parish School Board granted Homer Plessy its charter provisionally, and finally, officially… at least for the next three years.
McLeish says the OPSB took a risk with them. He says, in New Orleans’ current system, in order to start a school from scratch — a school that isn't a franchise — you have to have a bulldog mentality. You can’t give up.