New Orleans Schools Can’t Unify Alone

The post below is by guest blogger, Kira Orange Jones.

The independent charter schools within the Louisiana’s Recovery School District are transferring to the auspices of the Orleans Parish School Board to form a one-of-a-kind district comprised of autonomous schools. OPSB and RSD named this process NOLA schools unification. OPSB and RSD are tasked with transferring more than 50 charter schools to OPSB by July 1, 2018. In the process New Orleans has an opportunity to do something even more distinctive: create the most democratic school system in the nation.

But that lofty goal requires significantly more political participation than what district leaders are seeing. If families, community members and civic leaders don’t participate more and if school leaders and elected officials can’t get our stakeholders to contribute, then we will continue the longstanding New Orleans legacy of an elite few doing earnest work to determine the educational fate of many.

There is still hope we can unify more than a district; we can unify a fractured community.

The night before my first election, City of Love Full Gospel Church asked my mother and me to come to prayer service so they could pray for me. I gladly accepted the invitation as anxiety from the race pushed my personal limits. Not soon after we entered the church, the pastor asked us to come to the front of the sanctuary. One by one, parishioners (mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents of the children I would soon be tasked with serving) gathered around us, placing their hands on our backs and shoulders. Hundreds prayed for me that day. They prayed that I would have the strength and fortitude to serve and help our community’s children, their children, succeed. They literally laid their hands and trust upon me.

I’ve never forgotten that feeling of connection – spiritually or politically. Politically it serves as a metaphor of what is required to build a quality school system. Direct engagement with families, children and voters raises support and accountability to another level.

I have been following unification discussions across the city closely and the elections even more so. In May, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 91, which mandates the unification of New Orleans autonomous charter schools under the umbrella of the New Orleans Public School Board (OPSB). Unification meetings and public forums commenced soon thereafter. A series of public forums just completed in the midst of a school board election.

Unification is not just about schools. The transfer means that hundreds of charter board members from dozens of boards will engage with thousands of families in a conversation about governance in the next two years. Our highly democratic system of schools can take it to the next level.

I was expecting rigorous debate from all corners of our city. Unfortunately, few people have yet to attend the unification meetings. In a city known for its brilliant sounds and noise of resistance, the political silence has been notable. For example, four of seven OPSB seats were won before the election. Two were elected days after their campaigns kicked off without a real race. Another ended with a disqualification. Consequently, unification will not be a topic of debate among all aspirant board members this fall.

I extend my sincere congratulations to and have every confidence in our newly elected school board members. Based on what I already know of their leadership and track records, we may be poised to already have the best board we’ve seen in New Orleans in decades,  if not ever. Moving forward, it’s critical that their leadership help build a bridge between governance and the community here in New Orleans, even without the election process. I know firsthand that there is an impenetrable bond between the public and their elected officials that comes with earning public trust. As an elected leader myself, I’ve done that through the campaign trail—forums, debates, planning sessions, knocking on doors—and elected service over the years. As schools return to OPSB, it’s critically important for all of us as elected officials to create and maintain that bond.

Some say a lack of involvement means “the public” is happy with where education has landed. But from the day I left that church I realized that great educational systems and schools become even better with greater involvement.

We must do better as a community. The passage of Act 91 marks a decade of rapid academic growth.  But I fear that growth will taper along with civic participation. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; but if you want to walk far, walk together.”

With civic participation, we can create something not just structurally unique. We can create something politically powerful.

However, we must walk together.

Kira Orange Jones holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a M.Ed. in School Leadership from Harvard University, and is a second term elected member of the statewide education policy making board, the Louisiana Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, representing New Orleans and five other parishes. Kira also sits on the national leadership committee of EdLoc (Education Leaders of Color), an organization comprised of leaders of color committed to ‘third way’ values in education and sits on the New Orleans advisory board of Education Pioneers. Most recently, Kira was recognized by Louisiana Life Magazine as a Louisianan of the Year and in 2015 was named to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

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