Tempers flare over school as subject of TV series

Advocate staff photo by Keri Harden -- Stephen Barbini and Jeff Kuntz, producers of a new documentary series about the turnaround of John McDonogh High School, answer questions from the community at a meeting at the school Tuesday night. The series is scheduled to run on the Oprah Winfrey Network in March. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by Keri Harden -- Stephen Barbini and Jeff Kuntz, producers of a new documentary series about the turnaround of John McDonogh High School, answer questions from the community at a meeting at the school Tuesday night. The series is scheduled to run on the Oprah Winfrey Network in March.

An announcement earlier this month that John McDonogh High School students will be the subject of a documentary series scheduled to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network in March is not going over well with all McDonogh neighbors, alumni and former staff.

The charter operator’s monthly board meeting adjourned early Tuesday after it was disrupted by screaming matches. The meeting drew larger numbers than normal with the promise of a viewing of a clip of the show.

McDonogh, characterized as “one of the most dangerous and underperforming schools in the country” by the network’s news release, was taken over last summer by nationally known education reformer Steve Barr and his charter organization, Future is Now. Barr brought in co-Principal Marvin Thompson from Virginia.

Barr said the show’s producers approached him several years ago about documenting the turnaround of a high school under his management.

The gathering of about 100 people Tuesday night, which included heated verbal clashes between students and elderly community activists, was caught on tape — as the meeting also was attended by the show’s film crew. All who attended were asked to sign a release to appear on film.

The sign on the door referred to the show as “Treme High,” but according to the latest news release from the network, the show is titled “Blackboard Wars.”

The portrayal of the school in a two-minute trailer posted recently on the network’s website was a source of anger for many of the people who attended the meeting.

The trailer begins with an image of an ambulance following the 2003 shooting in the school’s gymnasium, followed by several clips of violent encounters between students and between students, faculty and security guards in the hallways. Text flashes on the screen describe “volatile students,’’ “an angry community’’ and “suspicious parents.”

The trailer ends with more upbeat shots of kids at the school and then Thompson asking them, “I know what you are capable of — the question is, do you?”

Many people at the meeting took issue with the “most dangerous” label given to McDonogh.

“Based on what?” former McDonogh administrator Shawon Bernard asked.

Bernard asked producers to make sure that their facts are accurate. She pointed to inaccuracies in a YouTube video during which Thompson talks to a group of volunteers in the school’s auditorium three months following his arrival. The video was posted on Aug. 1 by a Faith Lutheran Church Youth group, who painted walls at the school.

In the video, Thompson said that when he arrived none of the students he encountered fit the stereotypes of being part of a violent and dangerous school, but they were frustrated with the image and negative legacy.

However, Bernard pointed out that Thompson himself was contributing to the misconceptions in the video, in which he claimed that “several students were killed” in a 2003 shooting inside the school. In fact, one student was killed.

Bernard, who said she was in charge of books at the school, took offense at Thompson’s assertion in the video that, “We are actually going to give them books for the first time.”

“We had books,” she said.

Bernard also challenged Barr’s claim, stated at the meeting, that the school’s attendance rate last year was just over 30 percent. While the data for the 2011-2012 school year has not been published, the state’s data shows that McDonogh’s attendance rate for 2009-2010 was at 78.4 percent and at 76.2 percent for 2010-2011.

Sandra Ewell, a neighbor and volunteer at the school for about 10 years, said she and another community member went into the school Monday to do their own head count, and based on that, they dispute Barr’s statement that the attendance rate is currently about 80 percent.

Barr then accused Ewell of trespassing and upsetting the children and terrorizing teachers.

Amid the shouting matches, McDonogh senior Eric Dillard said he had protested when the charter operator first arrived, but since then felt he had received a better education.

“For one, we’re not going to get anywhere by constant yelling,” Dillard said. Dyan French, a community activist best known as “Mama D” yelled back at Dillard, saying, “this is not in your best interest.”

Dillard said that from when he started three years ago, “there’s been a huge change” and continued to yell over French’s objections. “Is this about us?” Dillard asked. “Our education is on the line. The teachers this year are helping us. They are here for us.”

Ewell said that she was “troubled by the exploitation of the children — it’s degrading. I feel you are here to profit from our children and community.”

Barr said that he would not be receiving any financial compensation for the television series.

The school will receive a per-episode sum of money, but Barr said he could not confirm the amount. The money the school earns will go directly to students’ needs and programs that they cannot currently afford, he said.

At the meeting, Thompson said that most of the people who attended and expressed outrage weren’t the ones there every day working with the children. He said that he doesn’t care about how the adults felt about him.

Former teacher Jamal Robertson said the children have been given love for many years and asked producers Steve Barbini and Jeff Kuntz to include the context of the firing of all the teachers in the district following Hurricane Katrina.

Jerome Smith said the film makes it appear that “no one in the community can serve the community,” and that “the political games played on the children are astounding.”

Barbini told the audience that his goal is to tell an honest story and to make a difference with a positive show about change and transformation — not to make anyone look bad.

The clip shown featured student Taneisha Wells, known as “Tiny,” and followed her through her emotional problems related to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and losing her father when she was 9 years old.

Barr said her courage to tell her story was inspiring.

But Bernard questioned what support would be made available for students like Wells when her personal life becomes public to a national audience.

The producers assured the audience that all students on camera agreed to be on film, and all who are underage and participated had their parents’ consent.

Asked how the show benefits the students, Barr said he felt that showcasing their brilliance and potential, and how they can be helped, benefits New Orleans as a community as well as the nation in working together to fix failing schools and undo “a lot of educational neglect.”

Kuntz said the production crew has worked with and welcomed the community voice as part of the filming and that their concerns are being heard.