Students protest ouster of principal, staff and teachers
New Orleans — Angry at the second administrative shake-up at their school in two years, Walter L. Cohen Senior High School students stormed out of class on Friday and told Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard they won’t return until their principal and teachers do as well.
Juniors and seniors at the school were protesting Dobard’s decision to fire Principal Gavin Lewis, much of his staff and four of the 12 teachers assigned to those grade levels. Cohen’s 11th- and 12th-grade classes are operated by the RSD, but students in sixth through 10th grades attend a separate school within the same building called Cohen College Prep. That school is run by New Orleans College Prep, a charter school group.
Dobard plans to turn over management of Cohen’s juniors and seniors to Future Is Now Schools, a national charter school organization partially backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The changeover is supposed to happen Oct. 15.
Dobard said after his staff conducted site visits at the school recently, they recommended to him that a change in leadership occur. Dobard acknowledged that the change was abrupt but said officials needed to make certain students were being prepared properly.
“I could not just sit by and say we’re going to let the status quo go,” Dobard said.
He came out to the school on Friday to talk to students, but received a testy response from them and the few parents in attendance.
Dobard has scheduled meetings for next week to discuss the change with parents and students. He said he hopes they will trust him and return to learning.
“We appeal to their sense of trusting us as educators,” Dobard said.
But students at the school Friday expressed little trust in Dobard or his policies. Several of them questioned how he could hire an entirely new staff for this school year and then fire them six weeks later. Students said they had built relationships with teachers and staff members, and now that process has to start all over again.
“The point we’re trying to make is that this is going to set us back,” senior Terrell Major said.
Major said it was already obvious that the older students weren’t a priority, but this recent decision just drives that point home. The students learned of the firings during a school assembly and were initially given the impression that they would be moved to different schools as part of the change, Major said.
Although Dobard has said that won’t happen, students said they believe the shake-up is proof that only charter school students matter. Major said it seems like they’ve already been cast aside by the system.
“A lot needs to change, and it’s more than just my school. The superintendent needs to change,” said Major, adding that he believes the RSD kept a few teachers just to placate students. “What they don’t know is that we’re going down for all of them.”
Meagan Mckinnon, another senior, said Cohen has a graduation rate in the high 90s, and students truly love their school. She couldn’t understand what sort of problems Dobard found that required such a drastic action. Now she’s worried about whether the shake-up will affect her ability to get the credits she needs to graduate.
“It’s really making us mad,” Mckinnon said.
Dana Peterson, the RSD’s Deputy Superintendent for External Affairs, said that the new administration will be focused on helping students get the credits and education they need. Peterson said the site visits found a disturbing culture at the school, although he would not provide specifics on those problems. Peterson said there is no precedent for such an abrupt change, but the superintendent felt it was necessary or the problems would “linger.”
“He walked away not satisfied with what was going on there,” Peterson said. “Our goal is to get kids college and career ready.”
The Future Is Now organization recently took over the troubled John McDonogh High School on Esplanade after that school had been plagued by violence and poor performances for decades. The group is most famous for school takeovers and turnarounds in Los Angeles. Future Is Now schools concentrate on smaller class sizes, improved technology and longer school days to help students learn, according to the group’s website.