Reed students are working to preserve school for the future

Advocate staff photo by Kari Harden -- Sarah T. Reed High School students Myron Miller and Jonshell Johnson, from left, host a panel focused on sharing their vision for the future of their struggling school.
Advocate staff photo by Kari Harden -- Sarah T. Reed High School students Myron Miller and Jonshell Johnson, from left, host a panel focused on sharing their vision for the future of their struggling school.

As the remaining high schools run directly by the Recovery School District continue their transformation into charter schools, students from one of them, Sarah T. Reed High School, are working to make sure that their vision for the school’s future is included.

The school has consistently been labeled as failing, and the RSD announced in late 2011 that Reed would be phased out by 2015, starting with the ninth grade. But current students say they aren’t willing to give up on the school’s legacy for future students.

Student Bryan Kelso said the student-run Reed Renaissance Initiative began because the school had “a lot of untapped potential, but Reed needed to be nourished.” It’s not just about them, it’s about the Reed students they want to see follow behind them, Kelso said.

The group, which met last month to host a panel and share its vision with school leaders, has the stated mission to “empower the local community to develop and execute a democratic, bottom-up plan for Sarah T. Reed’s positive transformation.”

The group’s initial project was a survey of 250 students who asked their peers what changes they wanted to see in their school. That resulted in the publishing of a “Student Blueprint” for a revived Reed.

That blueprint points to the state’s history of rejecting charter proposals by a grassroots community group, the New Orleans East Charter Academies.

“The RSD’s inability and unwillingness to effectively manage the school, coupled with the State’s refusal to devolve control to the local community, have left Reed students in an unconscionable situation, forced to endure continuous disinvestment, a dwindling population, and substandard educational and environmental conditions,” the blueprint says.

It describes the decision to phase Reed out as being made “unilaterally,” with the voice of the community “repeatedly undermined.’’

But since then, RSD officials have met with the students, and have committed to working with them to ensure the best possible outcome for the current students’ remaining years as well as the eastern New Orleans school’s future.

Michael McKenzie, the new principal of Reed, spoke at the students’ March panel and told them the RSD is working with a potential Houston-based charter operator to run the school for the 2014-15 school year.

He also told the students about promising developments he’s seen over the past eight months including a rise in ACT scores and a campus with improved safety and fewer fights.

He said attendance is up and there are more social workers on campus.

“We will not be failing come the 2013-2014 school year,” he said.

RRI students also shared the lessons they learned visiting schools in Houston and California on a recent trip during which they met with teachers, students and administrators.

“We got a new vision of what a school should look like,” student Jonshell Johnson said.

Johnson described her goal for building a positive relationship between the administrators and the students, in which the students have the opportunity to give input into policies.

She also said she wanted to see more classes based on critical thinking that are relevant to real-life issues.

Student Myron Miller, one of RRI’s founders, shared his goal of a student advisory board and better communication between the principal and parents.

Students also expressed a desire to increase extracurricular activities, strengthen partnerships with the community, focus on preparations for college and vocational paths and provide better language access for students and families.

Minh Nguyen, founder and executive director of Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, a partner of RRI, said that road has been rocky, but a lot of progress has been made at Reed.

While people often say the students are future leaders, Nguyen said, “These young folks are actually today’s leaders.”

RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson, who also attended the meeting, said the ongoing communication between the Reed students, the community and the RSD is an example of a working relationship that is proving successful in finding ways to improve the school — a story he said is not being told.

When he first met with the RRI students, Peterson said, he walked away impressed.

“I’m committed to working with you,” he told the students.

Finding McKenzie was a step in the right direction in the school’s leadership, Peterson said.

Isiah Boyd, a Reed 2003 alumnus, asked Peterson whether the name of the school would change under a new charter operator — as have the names of many other schools in the city.

Peterson said the new charter would make that decision, but that “I do support the school being named Sarah T. Reed.”

McKenzie said he hopes an agreement with the only potential new operator who has applied thus far — Project Grad — will go through, but that his focus for now is on achieving a passing score.

“Y’all motivate me every day,” Cristi Wijngaarde, a community member who accompanied the students on the trip to visit other schools, told the RRI students.

Students are dealing with similar challenges at G.W. Carver and Walter L. Cohen high schools, the other RSD direct-run schools phasing out and in line to become charters. Students at those schools also have organized efforts to improve them and voice their concerns.

The group United Students for New Orleans has members from all three schools.

At Cohen, which underwent major changes in administration and management last fall, students staged multiple walk-outs and protests.

Like at Reed, where the KIPP Renaissance program is co-locating while its facilities undergo renovations, Cohen is sharing its building with New Orleans College Prep, which will eventually take over the whole school.

When College Prep moved its students into part of the Cohen building but did not take the existing Cohen students, the decision sparked criticism, including accusations that it is practicing a form of selective admissions, as well as complaints about inequity between the two programs.

But Peterson said that the way College Prep wrote its charter was to build out one grade at a time and following their model would better ensure their success.

Collegiate Academies, which runs Sci Academy, is running two ninth-grade academies at the Carver campus, Carver Collegiate and Carver Prep, and is also modeled to grow by one grade each year as the direct-run George Washington Carver Senior High students graduate out.

Growing one grade at a time is “what we know how to do,” Morgan Carter Ripski said. Ripski said they have found success working with smaller numbers to start and are committed to keeping the Carver name.

At Reed, Peterson said that the new charter operator will decide on the school’s name, but he told concerned community members that he supports the school keeping its name.

This story was altered on April 9, 2013