Documentary looks at McDonogh school

The students of John McDonogh High School will be at the center of a documentary series scheduled to air in March on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

In a news release sent by the network on Saturday, “Blackboard Wars” is described as telling the story of “the dramatic transformation of New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, where more than half of its students fail to graduate.”

The series was filmed over the fall at the school, which has a reputation of struggling academics and violence, particularly after the gaining national media attention when a student was fatally shot in the school’s crowded gymnasium in 2003.

Six hour-long episodes have been filmed thus far.

Last summer, Steve Barr, leader of the charter operator Future is Now, took over the school, which was still failing after six years of being run directly by the Recovery School District.

Barr is known for his aggressive takeovers of schools in Los Angeles and for working closely with teachers’ unions, an unusual approach for a charter operator.

With “unprecedented access,” the news release describes following the adult stars of the show, “education maverick Steve Barr and no-nonsense principal Dr. Marvin Thompson as they embark together on an unpredictable mission to reinvent and revive the struggling school.”

Thompson, who was hired by Barr as a co-principal, previously worked as the superintendent of schools in Roanoke, Va., and then as president of an education consulting company. Barr also traveled around the country to recruit talented teachers.

At a panel discussion held Saturday in California, Thompson, Barr and the show’s producer, Eddie Barbini, addressed questions about distrust from the community, privacy, the use of the word “war” in the title and their educational philosophies.

Asked if he felt the school’s outcome was successful, Barr described his first visit to the school last year, when it was set to close, according to a transcript of the panel discussion.

He said of 261 students enrolled, it was rare to see more than 60 in attendance on any given day.

Currently, he said the school has 409 students and an attendance rate of approximately 80 percent.

One audience member at the panel discussion asked Thompson how, as principal, he could change the attitudes of students who didn’t want to learn.

“It’s not failure or inability to learn,” Thompson said. “It’s the desire to learn and someone to push them. Most of us in this room had someone to push us. ... These young people don’t have that. So we have to meet them at their most fundamental level, which is their most basic self-esteem need, which is love first.”

Barbini said that the show’s producers gained parental consent to filming by working closely with parents and sending out blanket releases to “sort of gain their trust and let them understand that we’re not there to exploit them in any way,” the transcript said.

He said about 95 percent of the school was on board.

In the episodes he has seen, “you get to know the kids really well, and they’ve lovable, and they’re fixable,” Barr said, according to the transcript.

Thompson said that the New Orleans community is unlike any other he has experienced. “Where there is such a lack, I guess, love, that these kids don’t feel like ‘Someone actually cares enough about me to send me in the right direction,’” he said, according to the transcript.

“As I said to my teachers, this is not the suburbs. This is New Orleans.”