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NEW ORLEANS — When a group of Mid-City residents proposed opening a school four years ago that would be racially and economically diverse, they were greeted with doubt. Skeptics thought Morris Jeff would end up like most other public schools in the city: almost entirely African American and low-income.

“The understanding (was) that you guys are delusional. Once the school is open (it) will look the same way that all public schools who are open access look,” said Celeste Lofton-Bagert, one of the founders.

Today, however, a small, but growing number of charter schools are challenging that skepticism — and proving it wrong. At Morris Jeff, now in its fourth year, 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, just over half are African-American, and 42 percent are white. That’s not too different from the city as a whole. And this school year, two other new charter schools with similarly diverse demographics opened: Homer A. Plessy in the 9th Ward and Bricolage Academy Uptown.

For decades, New Orleans has had a small number of relatively diverse public schools, but most of them have at least some form of admissions criteria. What separates these new charters is that they strive to be both diverse and open to all. Students do not have to take a standardized test, for instance, to get in.

Across the country, the number of charter schools that are diverse by design has been steadily rising in recent years, in cities including New York, Denver, and Washington D.C. Scholars at the Century Foundation in Washington D.C., a nonpartisan research organization, estimate that about two dozen such charters have opened in recent years although they still comprise only a tiny fraction of charter schools.

“To me it’s a wonderful development,” said Richard Kahlenberg, who studies school integration at the Century Foundation. “It’s the old common school ideal…that you have students from all different backgrounds coming together and learning what it means to be an American.”

So far, the charter school movement has not been known for fostering school integration. Some experts, including those at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, have found that charter schools are more segregated overall than traditional schools.

Diverse by design
Students at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans, one of a small but growing number of charter schools that are trying to be racially and economically diverse. (Photo: The Advocate)

There are several reasons for the new trend toward diversity. Research suggests that children perform better academically in mixed-income schools. As the country diversifies, parents want children to relate to peers from different backgrounds. And families and educators are starting to push back against the model of charter school that has dominated in some communities, including New Orleans: That model, its critics argue, is segregated by design in that it’s created specifically for low-income minority children. These charters often feature a back-to-the-basics curriculum aimed at catching students up quickly, along with a rigid discipline structure that doesn’t always appeal to a broad spectrum of parents.

“I have spoken to more than one charter school founder who has a child and their child becomes school-aged and they have an ‘aha moment,’ ” said Eric Grannis, the founder of the Tapestry Project, a New York City-based initiative aimed at supporting the creation of diverse charter schools. “They realize they would not send their own child to the school they have created because they have created a school which is really solely intended for the disadvantaged.”

Part of this is because so many foundations and funders have found common cause in supporting what they hope will become “90/90/90” charter schools: Ones where at least 90 percent of students are low-income, 90 percent are minorities, and 90 percent meet set academic standards.

“A fair criticism of the charter school movement has been that there has been too much top-down control from the finance industry, philanthropists, and from foundations,” said Grannis.

Challenging a two-tiered education structure

Josh Densen, the founder of Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, says he has a lot of respect for charter schools targeted at low-income students with the explicit goal of closing the achievement gap.

But “what we saw was one type of school model that was offered to kids living in poverty and a very different school model offered to kids living in affluence,” he said. “And this to me…seemed inherently inequitable.”

Bricolage opened in August with just kindergarteners. Densen does not view diverse demographics as the schools’ ultimate goal but rather a means to an end: promoting empathy and understanding. “We know that kids are going to grow up and enter into a workforce and world that is way more ethnically diverse,” he said. “And in order to be successful in that world they will need to be able to value…other kids who don’t share their background.”

A second goal of the school is to help nurture creative thinkers. In a class called “innovation,” for instance, the children learn problem-solving skills. One recent afternoon, their teacher read from the fairy tale Rapunzel, and then asked students to brainstorm ways the prince could scale the tower to reach the woman he coveted. Their responses ranged from the pragmatic (building stairs or an elevator) to the fantastical (creating a “flying machine.”)

Richard and April Johnson, whose son is mixed race, said they were drawn to Bricolage because of its dual focus on diversity and critical thinking. “The concept of being able to teach kids how to think and not just memorize facts was really appealing to us,” said April Johnson.

Some of the skeptics of diverse charter schools, in New Orleans and elsewhere, doubted they could attract white or middle class families – families who decades ago abandoned all but a few of the city’s public schools.

But in fact they’ve had the opposite problem in some communities. Middle class families have flocked to the schools, and that has threatened their goal of diversity.

When Bricolage first started accepting applications, 55 families applied within the first 48 hours, said Densen. Most of them were from families who self-identified as making too much money to qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

By recruiting at Head Start centers and other programs with high concentrations of low-income preschoolers, Bricolage was able to achieve the diversity it hoped for: About 43 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch; 45 percent are white; and 41 percent are black. (At open enrollment schools that are oversubscribed children are entered into a random admissions lottery.)

But then came the even bigger challenge.

“I always said the easy part was going to be bringing together kids from diverse backgrounds,” said Densen. “The much, much harder part was going to be bringing the adults together from diverse backgrounds.”

One school, separate lunch tables

At schools with diverse socioeconomics, the wealthier families often have the time to volunteer or run the PTA. They own cars, making it easier to get involved. And they have confidence that comes with privilege. That confidence empowers them to question authority, and share their vision for the school.

Early on in Morris Jeff’s tenure, some of its founders began realizing that middle-income parents were assuming most of the leadership roles in the parents’ organization, known as the family partnership. “I think that’s always the danger of parent organizations, is that you get strong and powerful…and then at the same time not everybody feels like they belong,” said Aesha Rasheed, vice-president of the board at Morris Jeff.

The family partnership redoubled its efforts to be inclusive, connecting families so that they could carpool and hosting coffee chats, for instance.

But Crystal Daspit, a mother with three children at the school, said it’s hard to break old patterns — even among the kids. Just recently, she asked her son whom he sits with at lunch.

“He sat with all the people who are like him and he had specific ideas about the other people who are not like him,” she said. “So we had to talk about, ‘When you walk into a room who do you gravitate to? How are you going to bridge those differences?’”

Lofton-Bagert said it’s important that schools like Morris Jeff never grow complacent.

“I think the danger will be if we ever come to a day where we say, ‘Oh, we are different and therefore we have figured out race or figured out class,’” she said. “We struggle with all the same issues that the rest of the city struggles. I think the only difference is we’re choosing to do it together.”

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  1. Good luck to New Orleans and other cities that strive to bring together a diverse populace by opening diverse schools. In Los Angeles, my trustees and I tried to open such a charter school, but the charter office there has in mind the ideals of the California Charter Schools Association, which have increasingly morphed away from the educational experimentation ideals of the 1990s towards an emphasis on the 90/90/90 schools that give their donors their biggest ego reinforcement — regardless of the fact that focusing on such a small percentage of the population alienates the majority, something the mainstream educational reform movement is probably discovering now that it wakes up to all of these morning headlines showing their political defeats.

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