Students from Walter L. Cohen and L.B. Landry high schools marched on the Recovery School District’s downtown offices after classes let out Wednesday to protest recent firings of staff members at both schools.
Approximately 75 students tried unsuccessfully to enter the building, holding signs and chanting “What do we want? Our schools! What do we want? Our teachers!” and “RSD must go!”
On Monday, students at Cohen High refused to go to class at the Uptown school for a second day to protest plans to fire their principal and some teachers and put a charter operator in charge — effective immediately.
On Tuesday, students at Landry High in Algiers refused to go to class to protest the firing of Derek “Skip” LaMothe, the school’s academic interventionist, head football coach and athletic director.
A group of about 50 students, joined by a handful of parents and alum, remained outside for the entire school day.
“They’ve got to think how we feel,” Landry senior Sasha Williams said. “They are constantly putting new people in, and we are constantly having to adjust to new people. This is going to hurt my heart. This is not fair.”
Another student collected slips of paper from classmates signed by their parents, giving consent for their children to miss class for the protest.
Williams said she and other students had been threatened with expulsion that morning by administrators.
Administrators came out of the school about 9 a.m. Tuesday and thanked the students for their participation then demanded they return to class.
The request was met by chants from the students, holding their signs up and yelling “No Skip, No School.” The students’ pleas to reinstate “Coach Skip” continued Wednesday at the Loyola Avenue offices.
Vera Triplett, who holds the highest office at Landry as executive director of transition, said she understands the students’ concerns.
She said she expected a sense of loss with the departure of LaMothe, someone who “has been an integral part of the lives of these kids, especially the football team.”
LaMothe said he had been told his termination was a result of a “position elimination.” The only role he was getting paid for at the time of the firing was as the academic interventionist, he said.
RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard issued a written statement to explain the firing of LaMothe, master teacher Zoe Brisco and secretary Myra Bickham:
“Due to lower than expected enrollment at Recovery School District direct-run schools, the RSD and school leaders had to make tough choices to ensure a focus on increasing student achievement. The RSD worked with principals across the district to maximize the funding available for instruction, maintaining critical supports in activities for students,” his statement said.
LaMothe said he did not understand why, if the school had budgetary concerns, the RSD froze enrollment last spring.
“They stopped kids who live down the street from enrolling in the school,” LaMothe said.
Youngsters within walking distance of Landry are being sent to school in eastern New Orleans, he said, which means they have to catch a bus at 5:30 a.m.
“We wouldn’t have the enrollment problem if the RSD didn’t freeze it; they basically froze children out,” he said.
Dobard said enrollment was frozen in the spring as the district works toward a master plan requirement for a unified school on the West Bank.
All students who attended Landry last year were given the opportunity to return this year, Dobard said. Some parents chose to move their children to higher-performing schools, and the RSD decided not to accept new students at Landry in order to fill seats at those schools. As a result, enrollment after the freeze was lower than expected, he said, making the cuts necessary.
Yvette Theirry, a Landry alum of several generations, said she showed up on Tuesday because she was concerned about the firings of Brisco and LaMothe.
“Two educational pieces are being erased out of these kids’ lives. If you find educators who the kids relate to — you want to lift that. The RSD seems to be doing the opposite,” she said.
“I want Coach Skip to stay,” said 12th-grader Kevin Williams, a member of the football team. “It’s not just a football team, it’s a family. And it’s not just about coaching; it’s his presence and him being around. It’s about a lot more than football.”
LaMothe held his football players to high academic standards, according to Rodrick Young, a football player in the 11th grade.
In the past year, Young said, the football team’s collective GPA increased from 1.1 to 3.2.
“Since he’s been in charge, he changed a lot of peoples’ lives. He is like a father figure to a lot of us,” Young said.
The mother of a senior and football player, Jacquel Flagg, also described LaMothe as a “father figure.”
“He calls parents to make sure the kids got home after the games,” Flagg said. “And if they are not home, he goes to find them.”
When students need rides to and from school, LaMothe is there, Flagg said. When students need to be fed, LaMothe and his wife bring them into their home and feed them.
Sedonia Tramble, the parent of a ninth-grade football player, said LaMothe has helped keep her son out of trouble.
When the children have negative behavior and attitudes, Tramble said, LaMothe is quick to put an end to it.
“Who is going to do that after Skip is gone?” she asked. “It took Skip to make a difference. Now you’re going to take that away.’’
LaMothe has been offered an opportunity to continue working with the football team, Triplett said, though not as the head coach, who is required to be an employee of the school.
“We are listening to the children, and we are listening to their protests.” Dobard said.
Flagg said she thinks LaMothe was fired in preparation for the planned merge of O. Perry Walker and Landry.
LaMothe, who has taught and coached at both schools, has been a vocal opponent of the merger. He speculated his firing might have to do with his role as president of the Friends of Landry alumni group, which has been trying to take over Landry as a charter operator for several years.
The Friends of Landry group has been a vocal opponent of the merger with Walker.
It is “unequivocally untrue” the firing had anything to do with LaMothe’s role as president of the Friends of Landry group, Dobard said. Cuts were made at other RSD schools and at the central offices, Dobard said. The decision was made based on the recommendations of the school’s leadership, he said.
The decisions did not have to do with any one person, and the main goal was to do what was “academically least disruptive,” Triplett said “It’s always a tough call to make. It was purely an economic decision.”
On Wednesday, LaMothe said his response to Tuesday’s walkout was a “two-way street.” On the one hand, he said, “I’m never going to advocate children missing school.”
But, he said “I appreciate their support to the fullest. I was so proud of them. Too often people make decisions on the backs of children and for them, and do not give them credit to make their own decisions. They wanted to make a statement about something they believed in, and someone they care about.”
After close to an hour of protests at the RSD central offices, the Cohen students, then the Landry students, got back onto their buses. The alumni and teachers remaining yelled cheers of support.
The proposed merger was an underlying issue for many who attended Tuesday and Wednesday’s protests.
“They don’t understand how close this community is,” LaMothe said. “Walker doesn’t want to merge. Landry is going to stay Landry as it is.”
Dobard said the new unified school will be operated by the Algiers Charter Association, which will be in charge of naming the school. The district is working to “preserve the legacies and traditions of both campuses,” Dobard said.
Anderson pointed out Landry is nearly 75 years old. “When you come to Landry, you need to put on blue and gold and be a Buccaneer.”