My readers will pardon the delay with which I am passing on information about a fairly urgent situation. However, the sheer volume of work that the union has sent my way, plus the psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged outrage have conspired to keep me from relaying this information clearly until now.
Ah, where to start?
Decision makers at the state level are planning on closing Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude in the Upper 9th Ward. We know this for two reasons; one that no new freshmen were admitted last year, and that several weeks ago teachers at Douglass were pulled into a meeting and told that the school is being phased out.
The very way this is being done is sneaky and vague; likely because if these plans were publicly announced they could result in a huge PR problem for the RSD and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek.
But first, a bit about Douglass for those of you not familiar with the school.
Douglass High School
Frederick Douglass High School is in the 9th ward, on St. Claude between Pauline and Alvar. It’s in an old, poorly maintained but still beautiful pink art-deco building that straddles the block, across the street from Charles Drew Elementary. The names, Douglass and Drew, are more recent; those who grew up in the neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s still remember them as Nicholls and Washington, respectively. Times change, demographics change, and with massive white flight, black power and a movement towards a recognition of black history, names change. I have only heard the process of renaming the school from that of a Confederate General to a radical trade unionist, former slave and abolitionist alluded to, and unfortunately have no concrete details for my readers.
The Ninth Ward (upper ninth, that is), with the exception of parts of the newly gentrified Bywater (between St. Claude and the river), is a low-income African American neighborhood with serious problems. The student body that goes to Douglass is almost exclusively black and almost exclusively free and reduced lunch. LEAP test scores are low, graduation rates are some of the lowest in the city.
It also has a lot of community support. Before the storm the Frederick Douglass Community Coalition was very active in school and the neighborhood surrounding it. The school is also one that participates in Kalamu Ya Salaam and Jim Randels’ nationally acclaimed writing program, Students at the Center (SAC). At Douglass, along with other public schools, Kalamu and Jim have been turning inner-city youth into writers and intellectuals for years now. It’s an incredibly hopeful and inspiring project.
Given the socio-economic status of the neighborhood, it would be extremely unlikely for Douglass not to have problems. But many people in the community support the school and see it as a place where there is a struggle to improve things for the children of the 9th.
The Plan to close Douglass
We are not sure who is behind this plan, but Pastorek would have to be massively out of touch to not know about it. As for RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, he is likely not the originator of this plan but he is at least an accomplice, and has been making statements about the state’s designs for the school which range from dire to vague to downright contradictory.
Vallas claims that the decision not to bring in new freshmen in the ’07-’08 year was made before his tenure, which is probably true. However, I was at a BESE (state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) meeting a few months ago where he and his financial team brought forth the RSD capital improvements budgets, and there was a very clear distinction between the schools that were to receive large amounts of funding for building renovations and those that weren’t. Douglass was among the schools that had very few funds allotted to them. Maybe Vallas was counting on the assumption that no-one concerned about Douglass would be at that meeting, as it is held during the work day in Baton Rouge. However there is a plan in the RSD that specifically does not allocate funds for the repair of Douglass and a number of other schools, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest.
This all came to a head at a very disappointing meeting with Paul Vallas last Tuesday, a meeting that was shocking for the sheer level of disregard Vallas displayed towards a group of concerned community members and stakeholders. Now, given that I am used to official disregard for community concerns, but the powers that be usually do a better job of hiding this than Vallas did. And it was not just anyone that met at Douglass- this was a group that included Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC, Gwen Adams of ACORN, musician Charmaine Neville, Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance, teachers and students at Douglass, and neighbors who live within blocks of the school.
First, Vallas showed up half an hour late. Now, here in New Orleans meetings rarely start on time. But thirty minutes was excessive by anyone’s standards. This was followed by a presentation by Vincent Nzinga of the RSD, who gave one of the more absurd speeches I’ve heard yet, where he tried to associate the spirit of Frederick Douglass with a criminal justice academy in the Lower 9th, planned to replace the art-deco building on St. Claude, because Frederick Douglass was a lawyer.
I feel the need to point out to Mr. Nzinga some facts that he is likely aware of: that the 13th amendment does not apply to those duly convicted of a crime, and that the incarcerated population in America, particularly in the south, is disproportionately black. Many of us have realized that in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, prison is the new slavery. And I feel the need to remind Mr. Nzinga that Frederick Douglass is primarily remembered not because he won a few court cases, but because he was an outspoken abolitionist.
I digress. This was followed by Mr. Vallas taking questions. Now, before we get too far into this, let me explain what a public meeting with Paul Vallas is like.
All of us got lungs at birth. Paul, he got lungs for, say, two or three people. The man can talk. Lord, he can talk. I’ve been at more public meetings with Paul Vallas than I can count. He talks, and talks, and talks. When people talk this much, you may think they have something important and/or profound to impart. However at the end of a meeting with Paul Vallas, one is often left with the realization that he has not committed to anything substantial except what he had already planned.
He also talks over people. Which he did quite a lot of at this meeting. To my knowledge no one has ever accused Paul Vallas of being a particularly good active listener. But this meeting was truly rare form.
Because this group wanted answers. Answers Mr. Vallas did not want to give.
He started off by dodging a question from a woman who had been teaching at Douglass for eight years and is temporarily in Illinois with her sick mother, questioning whether or not she was coming back. Vallas’ questioning the woman’s status was not received well by the crowd. Then Charmaine Neville got up and said that she knew a large number of tradesman and contractors who would be interested in working on the building for free. Vallas interrupted her to suggest that she bring them tomorrow to the school. Whether or not it was intended as so by Mr. Vallas, this was widely seen as a disrespectful brush-off and elicited hisses and angry remarks. But it was easy to see how. The entire meeting Vallas was defensive, awkward, angry.
At some point in the meeting (you will forgive my lack of chronology) Vallas passed out a brief report from Parsons Engineering which suggested that repairs to the school would be in the 30 million dollar range. Vallas repeatedly stated that he had no say in what would happen to the school building, saying that he only dealt with academics. For all of these questions, he referred us to the Master Plan.
Which brings me back to the rally to re-open Morris X. Jeff that I attended on Sunday April 6, 2008, where Torin Sanders of the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) stated that as much as he believes we should rebuild schools with that level of community support, that he’d have to refer to the Master Plan.
Master Plan? Many people in the meeting at Douglass were asking questions as they had never heard of a Master Plan.
At this point in the meeting I was able to clarify that the Master Plan that he refers to is the one being managed by Concordia Architects and Steven Bingler.
This is problematic for several reasons. One, Steven Bingler was sued by DeSoto Parish Schools in a situation that does not make Bingler and Concordia sound like very competent managers of school facilities.
Two, Steven Bingler is the brother-in-law of Sarah Usdin of New Schools For New Orleans (NSNO). It concerns me when you have those managing facilities with strong family ties to the heads of ideologically driven organizations like NSNO.
And you’ll have to pardon me, but I just don’t feel that NSNO has children’s best interests at heart, and I fear that ideology is clouding their vision. This is the group that, on their website, describes Katrina as an opportunity, and is spearheading bringing in large numbers of poorly-equipped recent Ivy League graduates to replace the veteran teachers in New Orleans. Multiple studies have shown that particularly in inner-city school districts, veteran teachers make a huge positive difference in test scores. But those like NSNO who are trying to replace a population because their analysis is that veteran teachers were the problem have ignored this data.
However, Bingler and his family connections are not the only problem here. Parsons Engineering has done quite a bit of work in Iraq, and the track record isn’t positive. A Washington Post reporter has described their Baghdad Police Academy, which literally rained feces from the ceiling, but this apparently is only one in a string of bad projects for Parsons.
To quote from the article:
“This is the most essential civil security project in the country — and it’s a failure,” said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office created by Congress. “The Baghdad police academy is a disaster.”
Bowen’s office plans to release a 21-page report Thursday detailing the most alarming problems with the facility.
Even in a $21 billion reconstruction effort that has been marred by cases of corruption and fraud, failures in training and housing Iraq’s security forces are particularly significant because of their effect on what the U.S. military has called its primary mission here: to prepare Iraqi police and soldiers so that Americans can depart.
Federal investigators said the inspector general’s findings raise serious questions about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to exercise effective oversight over the Baghdad Police College or reconstruction programs across Iraq, despite charging taxpayers management fees of at least 4.5 percent of total project costs. The Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it has initiated a wide-ranging investigation of the police academy project.
The report serves as the latest indictment of Parsons Corp., the U.S. construction giant that was awarded about $1 billion for a variety of reconstruction projects across Iraq. After chronicling previous Parsons failures to properly build health clinics, prisons and hospitals, Bowen said he now plans to conduct an audit of every Parsons project.
“The truth needs to be told about what we didn’t get for our dollar from Parsons,” Bowen said.
There are already too many parallels in disaster profiteering between Baghdad and the Gulf Coast.
I left the meeting early, but from what I hear Althea Strong of American Friends Service Committee tried to pin Vallas down to a promise to stand behind the community, a promise he wouldn’t make.
The long and the short is this: Don’t count on Vallas or anyone at the state level for help, and frankly you should not be lulled into waiting for this dubious Master Plan. For the Douglass community, you are going to have to fight to keep your school.
To quote Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”