Meeting the Middle

This is a traditional Investigative Package written by Prinsey Walker. 

After 2005, Hurricane Katrina disrupted the New Orleans Public School System.  Before the hurricane, NOPS was the worst school system in America. The havoc caused by mother nature in New Orleans gave the city a chance to rethink how to improve their failing education system.

After the storm, Orleans Parish Schools never returned under the Orleans Parish School Board umbrella. Instead, charter school programs, private investors who create public education opportunity, came into the city to educate the children of New Orleans. According to data presented by Louisiana Believes in their High School Performance Data, NOPS, once an unsuccessful school board with a 66 percent of students enrolled in failing schools, improved. As of 2014, 10 percent of students were enrolled in the failing schools under the Recovery School District.

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Young Man from McMain

Yet, despite RSD’s positive impact on students, members of the community voiced their disapproval for the charter school system. Anthony Heyward, an art Teacher at West Jefferson High School said, “Before, students went to school in their districts.” Now, parents are fighting to get their kids enrolled into competitive schools that produce high achieving students. “Parents are fighting to find a good school,” he said.

What is a Good School?

      Anthony and Denita Heyward began their high school search for their daughter Kayla Heyward, at the the end of her seventh grade year at International School of Louisiana.

Kayla Heyward, applied for A list schools: Lusher, St. Marys, NOCCA and New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School. Kayla Heward’s parents wanted her to apply to these high school institutions because they were “good schools”.

Defining a good school is different for every group of parents. Anthony Heyward said that a good school is one that has a strong administration. “A good school consists of a solid teaching staff, with a strong principal, and teachers who are coming to work for more than a paycheck,” he said.

Denita Heyward, a New Orleans native, said that a good school contains diversity. “I want my kids to be exposed to diverse environments. But of course what everyone wants in a good schools is testing support,” she said.

Dr. Andre Perry, an education leader in New Orleans, said that a good school is able to grow a child, but most importantly give back to the community. However, he added, “Not everyone has the opportunity of school-choice to find a good school for their child.”

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Kayal Heyward Studying

The Middle’s Advantage : School Choice

Anthony Heyward and Denita Heyward both attended  McDonald 35 and Warren Easton High School in the Orleans Parish. However, the top choices on their daughter’s list were predominantly white schools.  

Since parents have started competing to get their kids into “good schools” there has been a shift in the economic and racial makeup of students in public education.  30 years ago in New Orleans, students attended institutions in their area. Most of these first generation college students have since, entered the middle class. A poll conducted on Twitter resulted in 13 out of 24 students attended a predominately white institution, while their parents attended historically black high schools. Another Twitter poll resulted in 121 out of 190 students stating that they attended a predominantly white institution before attending an historically black college or university.

Three of the highest achieving schools in Louisiana are Benjamin Franklin High School, Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies, and Lusher Charter school, according to U.S. News and World Report. 33 percent of the 894 students who attend Haynes Academy are African American. In addition, 26 percent of the students recieve free or reduced lunch. Now, African Americans make up 8 percent of  Benjamin Franklin High School’s population of 753 students, while  25 percent are on free or reduced lunch. Finally, Lusher Charter School with 1,691 students enrolled in the K-8 population, 30 percent are  African American, and 19 percent of their students recieve free or reduced lunch.

These high achieving, grade A schools, are three of the the few schools that parents want their children to attend. Jenny Crommer, the Admissions Counselor at Lusher Charter School said, almost 500 people applied for grades sixth through 12th during the 2016-2017 school year. “We only hold about 150 spots in 6th grade and up and only fill in spots when they are available,” Crommer said. “But, it is rare for students to ever leave the school, so we usually do not have a lot of available spots.

End of School Day at Lusher Charter School

Schools are becoming competitive to enter because they are collecting all of the smart children and putting them in a pot, and as a result, other schools begin declining, Anthony Heyward said. “This is how schools (like Benjamin Franklin) maintain their reputation and keep their reputation. We complain about it, but we still want our kids to go to these schools.” He believes that low-income communities had the capability of being “good schools” again, but now the system is made to weed out the lower achieving students. “When (I) was in school, there were enough decent students to make a school work. There were enough decent student to outnumber the knuckle heads,” Heyward said. “Now, they are taking all of the good students and making the schools selective.”

Andrea Zayas, a graduate student majoring in Education at Xavier University, said middle class families have more choice than low-income families. However, the reason why there is a lack of “good schools” in low-income areas is because middle class families pull their kids away from low-income neighborhoods. “There is an argument about class that folks of color are willing to sacrifice participating in the public school system, even if it does not align with their values because they don’t want their kids to associate with lower income kids,” Zayas said.

“We quickly want to dissociate ourselves from those in the hood, from which we recently came,” she said.

Now that members of the African American middle class are enrolling their students into institutions that are predominantly white or have more student diversity, are parents also paying attention to teacher diversity, while making their school choice?

Research conducted by Institute of Labor and Economics presented that black students learn, perform better on standardized testing, and have positive perceptions from their teachers, when they taught by people of their same demographic.

Dominique Newton, a freshman at Xavier University, attended George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy for high school.  According to Niche, the school currently has 305 students enrolled, with 70 percent receiving  free or reduced lunch. After Katrina, the school’s teaching staff was mostly white. For the 2015-2016 school year, the school recieved a D from Louisiana Believes. Newton said that she and her classmates protested to incorporate more black teachers in the classroom. “After Carver transitioned from being a preparatory to a collegiate academy, they added more teachers who looked like us to teach us.  So, my senior year, Carver had a more diverse staff,” Newton said. 

Taqiyyah Elliot, junior majoring in Political Science at Xavier University of Louisiana, agrees that kids should be in teaching environments where they see people like them. “When we look at educational institutions what is lacking in the city of New Orleans, there are a lot of white faces,” Elliot said. Though Elliot supports black students being taught by black teachers, she is the product of public white education, and is grateful for the schooling she received.

“I would not trade my education for another,” she said.

Autumn Moore, junior studying economics at Loyola University,  also attended predominately white institutions all of her academic career. Through surrounding herself around white people, Moore said she learned the art of code switching. “I am around spaces where I have to act the part and be the part to get the position. Once I am in, I can change the cause of my situation,” Moore said. “Some people would say it is conforming, but it is getting it how you live.”

Elliott said she also lives by the same ideas of not conforming to the culture of predominantly white institutions. She said, “I am performing to beat them to their own game, so that I can take these resources and fuel them back into my community.” Yet, Eliot believed that not all African American’s live by these rules. “There are some black people who are assimilating into this culture because it is what makes them successful. Which is not good,” she said.

Education = Success

According to a poll conducted on Twitter, 83 percent of eighteen people said that education leads to success. In addition, a study conducted by the Pew Research center found that  “78 percent of black parents found education to be very important” because a college degree will lead to their child’s success.

African Americans equate education to success because it was an idea that sprouted from the lack of academic opportunity African Americans had throughout history, Perry said. “Black communities always scored the highest in believing in higher education. That comes from the early beginning to being denied education,” he said. “As well as the promises of what an education can do and we believe it.” The educator said that education is now less of an entry into the middle class and more of a basic requirement into the working class.

Therefore, this push for parents to enroll their kids into “good schools” comes from the need to maintain class status, Anthony Heyward said. “The African American (middle class) want to keep the establishment for their family. They don’t want to go back to what they call “the ghetto,” he added. “Whatever education is needed is what is going to take this lifestyle going.”

Though education is the method toward keeping the lifestyle for the middle class, according to another study conducted by Pew Research Center, it is easier for black people from the middle class to descend the economic ladder. Perry said this is because without an income, African Americans lack economic support needed to remain middle class. “People fall out of the middle class because they do not have the assets. It is not about having an income, it is about assets,” he said. Perry argued that those with generational wealth have the advantage.“We did not have grandparents or great-grandparents to pass down sugar or tobacco money,” he said. “The reason people fall out of the middle class is because we are always one job away from losing an income.”

Anthony Heyward said that a attending a good education” and going to a “good school” still does not guarantee success. He believes that accreditation helps, but who you know can get you far.

“You can have all the credentials in the world, and still not get the position you are hoping for. Just look at our president.” he said.

Retrieve the Key to the Middle Class

Amari Stewart, a junior at Benjamin Franklin High school, is at another stage of making a deduction about higher education. In 2015, after leaving Hynes Charter School, Paula Stewart enrolled her daughter into Franklin because she said the school had an intense college preparation program.” I knew that Benjamin Franklin would make Amari competitive for most noble universities.” 

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Benjamin Franklin High School

Ultimately, choosing the right college is the route to becoming a part of the middle class, Zayas said. “Going to college opens so many doors for you. That is a part of the promise. To go to college, you’ll make more money, and have  career options,” she said. However, Zayas said, “As we know, it is not available to everyone. The goal post for what is necessary to enter the middle class continues to move.”

Perry said that the institution that one enrolls into, will ultimately expose them to the positions in the job market, which leads to a particular class lifestyle. The educator claims that liberal-arts education will expose a person to a specific social political environment. “There are trade schools where you are not learning to advanced yourselves. You are learning to fill a certain role,” Perry said. “But, this is a good thing. You need some institutions to acculturate society, toward being upwardly mobile.”

Yet, those who attend a liberal-arts college are able to climb the social ladder, he said.

“It is easier to navigate mainstream spaces if you go to college and certain colleges,” added Perry. “You can get a liberal arts degree from Harvard and have a chance to work anywhere in the world.”

Now, Amari Stewart is looking for a college to attend where she can play soccer and major in either pre-law or pre-medicine. She has two more years before graduting  from high school. Her mother still wants her to keep her options open, but Paula Stewart said, “she is going where the money is.”

In the Middle of TOPS Education

Amari Stewart wants to attend a university that grants her financial rewards. However, there is one scholarship that will make her think twice about remaining in state, the Patrick Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, TOPS. “I will stay in state if TOPS is available,” Stewart said. “I will not if they cut the program again.”

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Amari Stewart searches for Colleges

TOPS, a  merit-based scholarship program for students in Louisiana, is an opportunity for students to attend a 2-year or 4-year institution with financial assistance. An analysis presented by the Louisiana Office of Student Fiscal Assistance, concluded that TOPS increasingly began rewarding students who were a part of middle class bracket, after 2005, leaving low-income students behind.

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Graphic Shown in Fiscal Report

In order to receive the merit based scholarship, students have to reach a certain score on the ACT and acquire a specific amount of credit hours from their school. Amari Stewart is on her way to completing the requirement for TOPS because of the education she has received. However, other students in NOPS may not.

Elliott claimed low-income students were in a disadvantage of receiving the scholarship because of the lack of support students have from teachers. “My professor once told me that teachers push students to get a 21 on ACT in New Orleans, which is already really low, compared to the rest of the country,” she said. “There is a disconnect in quality and education. They are saying let’s make sure you reach the bare minimum.”

The reason why low-income students are receiving lower ACT scores is because the test was not made to fit their social class, Zayas said. “Standardized tests of all kinds are catered to the middle class,” she said. “It is not that the middle class kids are more prepared or smarter or have resources. It seems like a better school, but it necessarily may not be.”

Perry does not think the TOPS scholarship is effective as a merit based award. Instead, he thinks that it should strictly be a need-based scholarship. “Higher education has become basic education. If you don’t get it, it is unlikely to achieve .” Perry said. “TOPS has failed to uplift low income students. As we move to an era of free college, we might see this change.”

In April, Perry worked with students through his radio show #Freecollege to urge Gov. John Bel Edwards to find a way to restore TOPS money. Recently, legislators announced that they hoped to fund TOPS through Louisiana’s casino companies. Now, the Louisiana House of Representatives approved a bill to fully fund TOPS. However, the scholarships’s funding came from Louisiana’s cut on health care. Specifically, Zika Prevention, mental health programs, and hospice services.

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Back on Tops 

Education continues to evolve in New Orleans. Another shift will occur in a couple of months, when all Orleans Parish Schools are installed under the Orleans Parish School System by July 1, 2018.

 

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