Cristi Wijngaarde says she is frustrated with the post-Katrina school system in New Orleans for the same reason a lot of other parents are: Her daughter has to wake up before dawn and catch three public buses to get to a high school across town, rather than walk across the street to Sarah T. Reed High School, which is being phased out grade by grade.
So Wijngaarde took the megaphone Monday evening, surrounded by a few dozen other protesters on the Michoud Boulevard neutral ground, and railed at the state officials in charge of Reed’s future.
“This is our building,” she said. “This is our school. And we want answers!”
Monday’s protest was part of a last-ditch effort to save the school from extinction, organized by the Vietnamese American Young Leadership Association, a community organization in New Orleans East, and a student group called Reed Renaissance.
But the protest was also part of a broader “national day of action to reclaim public education,” an event organized by the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two big national teachers’ unions, in response to the kinds of educational policies that have led to the closing of schools like Reed across the country.
The state-run Recovery School District, which has governed most of the city’s public schools since Hurricane Katrina, is closing Reed because of poor test scores, and because officials haven’t been able to find a charter school operator with a good enough track record to take over and run the school as an independent nonprofit, the way most city schools are now managed.
In fact, Reed is one of just three traditional public high schools left in New Orleans, and all are in one stage or another of being phased out.
Monday’s protest represented only the latest display of anger from residents who see the closing — or at least dramatic transformation — of these schools as a blow to their neighborhoods and their history. Some of the schools being closed down or phased out or which simply never reopened after Katrina were historically African-American institutions with names that honored black history.
On the other side of this argument are officials who are under pressure to raise historically substandard test scores and graduation rates, and who must make difficult decisions about which schools will remain open in a public school system that still does not have as many students as it did before the storm.
On Monday, the local context merged with an equally raucous national debate, in which critics have labeled the charter movement and related reform ideas “corporate education reform,” in part because of their association with billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad.
The “national day of action” seemed to cause a spike in the low-grade warfare that goes on continually between critics and supporters of the city’s charter school movement over Twitter.
Local activists hurled barbs under the #ReclaimPublicEd hashtag, while charter groups and nonprofits that support them responded under #THISisPUBLICeducation with images of fresh-faced students playing in school bands and learning about gardening.
For Reed, though, the outcome remains uncertain.
Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard released a somewhat enigmatic statement: “We look forward to hearing the community’s dialogue around ensuring families have access to great learning environments that challenge students to reach their full potential.”
But Ira Thomas, president of the Orleans Parish School Board, showed up at the protest and promised those gathered that he would entertain their request that Reed be allowed to stay open under the board’s jurisdiction.
The board lost control of most local schools to the Recovery District shortly after Katrina, but the Legislature this year approved a law, known as a reverse “parent trigger,” that would allow the school to come back under local control provided a majority of parents vote in favor of the idea.
Thomas, who is running for Orleans Parish sheriff, invited the protesters to take their cause to the school board’s Dec. 17 meeting at McDonogh 35 High School. “I want you to fill that auditorium and let your voices be heard,” he said.