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“Why can’t New Orleans have a charter school for middle class blacks?” A black physician and parent of a teenage daughter unashamedly asked me this question as we deboarded a first class cabin from our flight to the Crescent City. If I weren’t bourgie (African American slang for Bourgeoisie – pronounced boo-zhee), I would have cringed.

Our affectations won’t allow us to admit, but black middle class families really do need quality public schools. Many middle-income families simply can’t afford their pretentious tastes for private and parochial schools, and we also don’t want to send our children to overwhelmingly white environments for fear of cultural isolation.

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So, who is fighting for the Bourgie Charter Academy?

A school may assuage the pressure that middle class blacks are feeling in New Orleans. Black families make up about 60 percent of the total population and approximately 90 percent of the public school population. Since 1999, the share of New Orleans’s black middle and upper income households dipped from 35 percent to 31 percent while their white counterparts increased from 60 percent to 68 percent. In addition, post-Katrina structural changes to New Orleans Public Schools altered the student bodies of the traditional middle-, working-class havens. Eleanor McMain and McDonogh 35 lost some of their luster after changes in their entrance requirements and demographics. Consequently, those schools have yet to prove it was the school and not its demographics that brought acclaim and pride.

Enrollment and social struggles among the black parochial schools also reflect declining numbers and the difficulty that comes with inclusion. Unfortunately, schools’ reputations seem to be negatively correlated with the number of poor folk they educate.

While I’m sympathetic to the burden of Bourgie black folk, class struggles within individual ethnic groups are yet another set of barriers that keep schools and communities from reaching their democratic and educational ideals. The middle and upper middle classes’ perceptions and prejudices of poor black children are a primary reason New Orleans’ schools ended up in this systemic spaghetti bowl.

Public schools should look like the public. But public schools are the manifestations of the projected fears of the middle class – poor, black children.

We typically talk about white flight when describing the period when white families abandoned the public school system. However in New Orleans, we can easily describe the phenomenon as middle class flight. Whites represent approximately 35 percent of the total population but approximately 60 percent of the private/parochial schools. Blacks comprise about 35 percent of the private/parochial market. Whites alone didn’t exit public schools.
[pullquote]“The middle class should try to end poverty instead of shunning poor people. Maybe then our public schools would look like the public.”[/pullquote]
Middle class parents of all stripes feel they’re risking their children’s educations by placing them in schools with high concentrations of students in poverty. I held my nose when I placed my three year-old child in a lottery for entry into a popular charter school. (Pardon the digression. The idea of placing your child in a lottery offends bourgie parents) After not getting in the school, I did the middle class rite of passage. I enrolled Robeson in a private school – more indication that I’m bourgie.

Nevertheless, our fears that poor children possess some sort of psychosocial virus areas ridiculous as the defense of affluenzia. Privileged parents don’t fully appreciate how their precious child’s academic progress may have as much to do with how much money their grandparents earned as with their tremendous academic potential.

Education reform can’t be about learning how to educate poor people. The current movement hasn’t helped itself much with its teary-eyed, pity rallies that literally place a black or brown child on a stage to serve as raison d’etre. After the tears and checks flow, middle and upper middle class families return to the schools for their kind of people.

The middle class should try to end poverty instead of shunning poor people. Maybe then our public schools would look like the public. Maybe our reforms would include more root causes.

With over 60 years of collecting data on predictors of academic success, income/wealth consistently ranks high. Quality curriculum and instruction only gets us so far. Education reform would certainly see fewer tears and more jobs if we didn’t abdicate our responsibility for addressing poverty. Our drive for exclusivity isn’t finding the best education for our children. School reform minus efforts to be more inclusive only reinforces our biases of people in poverty. Further, saying that “poverty is out of our control” keeps us from going upstream.

There are some schools in New Orleans and across the country that are simultaneously trying to provide quality curriculum and instruction, strive for inclusion as well as involve the public. In particular, Morris Jeff Community Schools and the Bricolage Academy have explicit goals of including diversity when they talk about “high expectations.” They are not realizing the proverbial “tipping point” from their efforts. Consequently, they are pushing a system that is myopically focused on limited notions of academic growth. Meredith Broussard is right. Poor schools won’t win at standardized testing. We can meet the needs of the whole child if we are willing to pay for it. In addition, states should include diversity points in how they measure school performance.

Charter schools in New Orleans can also do more to promote programs for high achieving students (they do exist in public schools), which can raise the bar for the school even further while easing middle class parents’ concerns that public schools can’t push their children. Too much of reform has been about remediation. How do leaders know how far children can go if opportunities for acceleration don’t exist? Authentic Advanced Placement courses is part of the solution.

But our bourgie dreams for exclusivity keep us from seeing real solutions for building better schools and stronger communities. I certainly don’t have the answer, but I know that using public dollars to create private schools isn’t it. Alas, solving for poor thinking may be a bigger problem than poverty itself. The middle class seems overly willing to change poor folk and not ourselves.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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  1. To put some perspective of someone who has experienced the educational system in many countries. While educating my children in the public system in Canada and in Europe, I noticed that they were not really aware of race. All kids were kids. It wasn’t until we came to the US that I became aware of the issue of race percentage in schools and the attitude of some people (I am not sure who, none of the parents I spoke with mentioned that) towards that school. Actually, I don’t think the problem of such school is that kids are of any specific race, but that some schools just have a large population of children from very poor background, who lack the help they need, in order to be able to adequately participate in school. In the school my kids went to it wasn’t that the kids were of different race, but that they came from families with serious problems, I would guess drugs or alcohol, but, ultimately, just families that could not take care of the children. These children needed help, unfortunately, not much help was available to the families or to the children. It seemed like a vicious cycle, these families needed help with whatever issue was causing them to be in poverty, but because they were poor, they had no insurance or resources to get the help they needed. Coincidentally, most of them were African Americans, but I have no idea why this problem was was so prevalent in this group in the US. I guess, hence the association, albeit incorrect, that schools with high population of African American children are not good. I wonder how this perception is created. I did not see this group singled out in other countries. I also do not see this association being made by any of the parents I spoke with, the association is with school rating and whether or not they want to send their kids there, no one ever brought up the percentage of kids form certain background. It makes no sense to even talk about it, we are all so closely related, some just have more skin pigmentation, but really this is such a ridiculously artificial definition, it makes no sense to me. And it is pretty much only in the US (of all the countries I lived in) that it is even taken into consideration. Can we just make sure that the kids that need help get help, so the cycle is broken, so that they don’t repeat the life style of their parents, because they could not escape it? Bringing kids from better socioeconomic background into schools in bad areas, full of drugs and violence, will not help the poor kids, it will not eliminate the problem. It will just put other kids in unnecessary danger, the kids cannot make a bad area good. What can change the area is a proper social net, helping the families get out of poverty, reducing the desperation that drives them to drugs and violence, giving them something to live for, letting them be functional members of society. The kind of environment they live in is perpetuating their problems. If any of us had to spend time in it, we would likely develop PTSD and become unable to cope. People underestimate how much environment can destroy who they are, living in good middle class conditions can make you feel invincible, but almost anyone, given enough stress, can end up where these families are. The biggest difference I have seen between the US and other countries is that US lacks the social necessary to keep people form falling into desperate state. Nowhere else are mentally ill individuals just left on the streets. There is no safety net and if there is one, it isn’t implemented or working. With one in place, there would be no issues of “bad” schools or bad neighborhoods. I am not saying that there will be no problems at all, but take a trip to Germany or other developed country and just look around.

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