NEW ORLEANS — Students ran the show at the first-of-its-kind youth-led forum for Orleans Parish School Board candidates Tuesday night.
“We are not stupid. We are not immature. We are not ignorant,” student moderator Jonshell Johnson told the candidates. “We care about our schools.”
The small room at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in Central City was packed with as many bodies as it could hold — about 100 — with the first few rows filled with students.
The event was organized through a partnership between the student members and the adult staff of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, Rethink and Orleans Public Education Network.
Many of the issues brought up by the students related to charter schools and districts over which the board does not have authority. However, one of the key issues facing the new board will be the potential return of Recovery School District schools, many still failing after seven years, to board control.
From Benjamin Franklin High School, a charter, Mars Nguyen brought up the lack of transportation for students who live in other parts of the city. Nguyen described the sacrifices made by his parents in terms of gas expenses and the time taken to drive Nguyen from his home in eastern New Orleans to the Uptown school.
He asked the candidates about students’ rights for free, reliable transportation to and from school.
School Board President Thomas Robichaux, District 1 incumbent, responded that charters are supposed to provide transportation as part of their contract and that the board is aware of the problems.
District 7 contender Kwame Smith said that if charters are found to be “habitual” in violating terms of their contracts, then as a board member, he would “think twice” about renewing the school’s contract. Smith said he believed the board should be in the business of running their own schools, with more traditional schools and fewer charters and better opportunities for students to attend schools in their own neighborhoods.
From Sarah T. Reed Senior High School, an RSD direct-run school, Myron Miller told the board that being labeled as a failing school makes students feel they aren’t given a chance to prove themselves. Miller also mentioned the struggle of not having sufficient resources and watching grades phased out and schools closed. Ira Thomas, Karren Harper Royal, Cynthia Cade, Brett Bonin, Norman Marshall and Kwame Smith all told Miller essentially the same thing, that closure was not an acceptable reform tool and that failures were the fault of the adults. All candidates responded with a “No” to the lightening round when asked if they supported the current BESE and RSD process of closures and takeovers.
From Langston Hughes Academy, an RSD network charter run by FirstLine Schools, Kyron Neveaux told the candidates a story about a friend who was humiliated because the teachers posted test scores, with names, for the entire class to see.
Robichaux said that the act was illegal and that the teacher was acting as a bully. Durell Laurent told Neveaux that the teacher’s actions should be reported immediately.
From Sci Academy, an RSD network charter run by Collegiate Academies, Jordan Vigne told the story of being punished with a six-day out-of-school suspension after she had her cellphone confiscated then collected by her parents.
Her parents threatened to withdraw Vigne and refused to give the phone back to the school. Vigne said her phone was confiscated after school and that it wasn’t turned on, she was just taking it out of her bag when it was taken. According to data for the 2010-11 school year, Sci Academy suspended 38.1 percent of students.
Jason Coleman, District 6 contender, said six days was an unacceptable punishment for the infraction. Vigne asked the candidates if they would support alternatives to the “zero tolerance” school discipline policies and out of school suspensions. All said yes.
After the forum, John Dibert Academy students Whitney Alexis and Kennedy Robinson said that inconsistent and harsh discipline policies were key issues among their peers. Alexis described a policy of detention for missing a homework question.
Additional issues addressed by students were the need for more teacher training and the recent legislation that allows non-certified employees to teach, the need for translators for the parents of Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking students, college access and the need for more counselors at each school.
Jacob Cohen, assistant director for VAYLA, said that he thought the forum went “exceptionally well.” Armed with “scarce resources” but a lot of hard work on the part of the students, Cohen said he was particularly proud of the moment during which, before leaving early, Robichaux said that he thought the forum had been among the best — if not the best, in terms of content.
Cohen praised the confidence and control maintained by his moderators, who were quick to cut off candidates who ran too long. The students spoke to the candidates from a place of authority, Cohen said, telling them, “‘This is my lived experience. I am the expert on telling you about the conditions in my school.’”