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Reported by April Taylor
Although 60 percent of New Orleans population is comprised of African-Americans, and 88 percent of students in the public school system are African-American, only 31 percent of teachers are African-American. This is due in part to the entire school system — around 7,000 employees — being laid off in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The union that many employees were part of was rendered useless as many employees did not even receive official notice of the lay off. The Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that concluded that the teachers were wrongfully terminated, but rectifying the wrongful termination has been difficult, as many schools are now charter schools and many of the teachers who have taken jobs elsewhere.
Teach for America has used New Orleans as one of its main sites for nearly a decade, which means they have a strong influence on curricula and other policies. After Katrina, many wanted to make over the public school system that had been plagued by problems and low achievement. This overhaul meant that veteran teachers would find it difficult to be rehired because they were deemed as being part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity as well as the loss of teachers and role models that they admired has caused many students to protest the new system. Student-led protests began in October 2012. Jonshell Johnson is one of the students who helped organize the protest through United Students of New Orleans. One particular situation that motivated Johnson to protest was the firing of a veteran teacher who she described as, “really interactive and passionate.” That teacher was replaced by a 24-year old white teacher, and students felt as though she was difficult to relate to. Students also find that the social support they used to be able to rely on teachers for is not available from the newly hired teachers, who the students do not trust and do not have relationships with.
The students developed a list of demands that including the following statement:
“There are not black teachers. The only black role models we have at school are janitors, cafeteria workers, secretaries, security guards, and coaches. Some of the teachers are racially insensitive. None of the teachers are from New Orleans. They can’t relate to us, our neighborhoods, or our community. They have no respect for our customs and culture, and simply want to make us more like them without understanding us and our background.”
In addition, lawyers have filed an official complaint against three charter schools all run by Collegiate Academy. The complaint lists 15 grievances including the fact that 68.85 percent of students were suspended in one year. This suspension rate represents the highest in the city. The list also includes the fact that special needs children are bullied and harassed by staff with meals being withheld as punishment and that students who speak up about the mistreatment are intimidated and retaliated against.
Students do feel as though their protests have had an impact. Jonshell Johnson says that she feels that students activism has helped “shift the dialogue in the city.” Positive change does not have to be achieved by whitewashing an entire school system, and hopefully administrators recognize that this situation must be rectified.