Controversial documentary airs Saturday
New Orleans — The documentary series featuring John McDonogh Senior High School and the asserted “transformation” of “one of the most dangerous schools in America” will air at 8 p.m. Saturday on the Oprah Winfrey Network, but the six-part series is already drawing critical reviews from some in the school community.
The series was originally scheduled to air March 2, but according to OWN representatives, the date was moved up after Oprah confirmed an interview with Beyonce, which will air before the McDonogh show, called “Blackboard Wars.”
The filming of the show has created some controversy, especially after a trailer was posted on the OWN website, with opening images showing a stretcher and ambulances after a shooting in the school’s gymnasium in 2003, which left one student dead and three injured. Images of fighting in the hallways followed.
The first episode begins the same way, but the images of ambulances are followed by students who were injured in the 2003 shooting sitting in a classroom pointing to where they had sustained gunshot wounds. No date accompanies the description of the shooting.
The label as “one of the most dangerous schools” upset many community members who expressed their concerns last month at a Future Is Now Schools board meeting, the charter operator running the Mid-City school.
But according to Principal Marvin Thompson, who was hired at the beginning of the current school year by Steve Barr, founder and director of FINS, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s statement about the school at a Sept 18, 2011, crime summit was much stronger.
At the summit, Landrieu listed five homicides of McDonogh students that occurred in a five-month period outside of the school.
“From September of last year to February of this year, a student attending John McDonogh was more likely to be killed than a soldier in Afghanistan,” Landrieu said.
Thompson said he heard the mayor’s comparison his first week at the school and that the mayor took the portrayal far beyond the OWN show’s description.
Sandra Ewell, a neighbor and former volunteer at the school who is shown in the first episode protesting the takeover by California-based FINS, said the label is unfair and students are being used to make the out-of-state “transformers” look good and gain publicity.
“I’m very upset because they are making money off of the backs of children,” Ewell said.
While the producers confirmed at the January meeting that money is being paid directly to the school, Thompson said he stays out of any conversation related to money. Barr said that he did not know how much the school is receiving, but the money will go to programs for the students. Barr said he personally is not making any money off of the show.
But “Coach” Frank Buckley, 1982 alumnus and member of the McDonogh steering committee, said that the issue is not so much the “most dangerous” label as it is making sure the whole story is told.
Buckley said that one of his primary concerns was Thompson’s assertion in the trailer that the community failed the children.
“We did not fail these kids — we were not part of educating these kids,’’ he said. “The RSD [Recovery School District] failed the kids, and not just these kids, but all kids. And the RSD continues to fail kids.”
Buckley also appears in the first episode of the show and said that on three different occasions, he presented documentation regarding background information on FINS and how it came into control of the school, context that he believes needs to be included.
Buckley said he wanted to make sure the producers knew that a group of alumni, community members and the steering committee of which he is a member were working together to run the school as a charter themselves before a “back room deal” secured the charter contract for the out-of-state group with a questionable track record.
Ewell said she feels misled about agreeing to be filmed and that she did not realize how the students were going to be depicted. She said she is “disgusted with Oprah” as an African-American woman for showing the students in “such a negative light.”
But Thompson said it was Oprah’s involvement that gave him assurance of the integrity of the project.
In the first episode and a clip shown at the January board meeting, students are shown dealing with issues like bipolar disorder, homelessness, teen pregnancy and violent fistfights at school. In the premiere episode, a male student gets into a fight with another student because “he kissed me — he put his lips on my lips.”
Thompson, who said he did not have input in the decision to allow cameras into the school, said that all of the students and their parents (for underage students) signed releases, but that “as adults we have a responsibility of protecting the students.” In every situation, Thompson said the students had the option of engaging with himself and the producers about what was filmed and the intent and purpose.
As the show airs to a national audience, the school will provide support for any issues the students appearing in the series might face, Thompson said. Meeting the needs of the students is critical, and that “ultimately it’s about them and not anything else,” he said.
It did take a while to get used to the cameras, but Thompson said nothing was staged. “These have got to be some of the most honest and open young people I have met in my 20 years in education,” he said.
Thompson said the intent of the show is to foster a conversation about the challenges facing students in New Orleans and nationwide. He said he sees the show as “creating a purposeful dialogue about what young people in the community deal with,” particularly related to issues of crime and poverty.
“If the voices of the young people create that dialogue, then it’s worth the effort,’’ he said.
So far, Thompson said that enrollment is up, attendance is up and participation in extracurricular activities has increased.
But Buckley argues that improvement on the RSD’s failed efforts to turn around the school is not a very high bar to meet.
Thompson said he acknowledges that transformation takes time, but that small changes open doors for bigger changes, such as students gaining better understanding of the importance of raising their ACT scores to get into college.