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Is my high school, Lake Area New Tech, a prison or school? Students arrive ready for school every morning, but unfortunately must wait outside the building until security guards unlock the doors at 7:30 a.m. It could be raining, hailing, or sleeting, but they will NOT open the doors until then. Once the doors are unlocked, it takes the guards 15 to 20 minutes to search each student and check for uniform violations.

That leaves us with just a few minutes to eat breakfast before class starts at 8. That’s not enough time for 600 students to make it through the cafeteria line. On a typical morning, we are treated like prisoners, which causes students to react in a variety of negative ways.

Schools becoming more like prisons
Kenyatta Collins

Some students break the rules in response to how they are treated. I know how they feel because I was once punished for an act of “rebellion.” At my school, female students are required to wear skirts and socks of a certain length. One day I arrived at school without the proper socks and was told by my principal that I had two options: I could either go to in-school suspension or get my parents to bring the right socks. This made me angry and I gave my principal an earful. But I didn’t want to end up in in-school suspension with more than 30 other students so I called my mother and asked her to bring the correct socks.

It took her at least a half hour to bring them, meaning I lost that half hour of class. After going through that frustrating experience, I was upset for the nearly the whole day. I am the top ranking student in my class with a 4.5 grade point average, and also participate in sports and contribute a lot to my school. Why should a student in my position — or any student at all — be treated like a prisoner?

My school is not alone. The charter schools that have opened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina are beyond strict. The rigid discipline structures that have been placed inside these schools are not effective. In many schools students are expected to walk in straight lines, remain silent, and wear a full uniform at all times. These discipline structures focus too much on behavior rather than academic performance, which should be administrators’ number one priority if they want to help students excel.

Student Voices:
New Orleans perspectives

This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bard’s Early College in New Orleans. The teenagers wrote opinion pieces on whether all students should be encouraged to attend college, the value of alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America, the importance of desegregation, or the best approach to school discipline.

The only benefit we get from abiding by these rules is to look like young “professionals.” Yet what good will that do us if our test scores and academic performance are low? In order to become professionals we must succeed in academics, which is something we are unable to do if we’re being held in detention or suspended due to a uniform or behavior violation. By attending a school with fewer rules, I would excel even more since there would be fewer distractions about attire or behavior.

It’s quite challenging for most New Orleans students to adapt to the rigid discipline structures since they come from environments that are nothing like that. Many students here are exposed to drugs or violence or at least witness something of the kind. Although I have had no personal involvement in either, I often witness drug transactions on the streets. Some people think the violence and drugs make the rules even more necessary to make sure students don’t engage in such activities. Wrong! If you treat students like prisoners, they will react like prisoners.

Students also respond differently depending on who is making the rules. Most of the administrators working in the schools I have attended are white and not from Louisiana. This makes me think back to the beginning of the United States when the Native Americans were being “Americanized” by white Europeans.The white people made the Native Americans convert to their religion, stop speaking their native language, stop wearing their traditional clothing, and change their names to “American” and “Christian” ones. They even had to start wearing their hair like the white people wore theirs. I see a similar process happening in schools with all of these stringent rules which leads me to the question: Are we being trained for the “professional” world or for the white world? Or does being a professional mean being part of the white world?

Students may feel as if teachers from the North don’t know much about Southerners’ backgrounds. Why should we have to abide by rules created by people who are not from the South and don’t have full insight about us?  Some students feel like the teachers don’t know much about us apart from stereotypes. When the people who create the rules know so little about who we are and where we came from, what reason have we to trust them?

Kenyatta Collins, 16, is a junior at Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

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  1. Finally – let the children speak. Yes discipline is needed, yes structure is required and yes uniforms are not a bad idea – but her closing states are VERY much what is being spread as “best practice”. The colonization mindset of how children must walk, talk, hair color and cuts to “fit” in middle class America. Yes WHITE America is the bar for success. The standards are set my White administration and their TFA / TEACHNOLA staff with little if any input from staff of color. Wait!! They do hire BLACK staff to enforce THEIR rules (Deans – pawns) but not determine curriculum choices or even discipline policy. (Overseers vs masters) How many have been trained or attended any PD regarding the education of African American children or read their books, heard or associated with educational experts ( of African American youth such as Dr. Gloria Ladsen Billings, Dr Donna Ford or Dr Barbara King, Dr Brenda Townsend, Dr Gregory Carr?? All the need is a copy of TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION … Oh wait, conversations about race and rigor cannot be held at the same times quote from a charter administrator: Quote: “Black folks use race as an excuse for not expecting excellence.”
    How does the Black community let them get away with NOT understanding, teaching and using the rich history of this city as a stepping stone for success?? Quiz of children in NOLA in colonized schools; Who was Ruby Bridges, PLessy vs Ferguson, Freedom Riders / Freedom Summer, Congo Square History, connection between Jazz, Blues and Africa?? Answers – blank stares – no celebration of Black History – let alone infusion in daily curriculum – why?? Can’t teach what you don’t know…and don’t care about I mean after all how will THAT information help you to assimilate??

  2. My dear sister Collins with pride in my heart and an emotional crack in my voice I applaud and show respect to you for this article. You see young ma’am as adults we can speak on it tell our face turns colors and we will only get a small response or break in action. However, young lady when a young critical thinker stands up and lends her thoughts, solutions and plan of action that will spark a generation to take heed. This is actually your generations battle. We will back you all one hundred percent but you all must lead the way. I pray this is the beginning of a life’s journey for you. Salute young miss.

  3. You are not alone in your struggle to fight for educational equality for yourself and other students. I applaud you, because you have decided to take a stand, and expose the academic issues that you face under the deformed charter regime. My daughter attended Lake Area High School before it was chartered out, and it was a beautiful experience, because she had access to art classes, gardening classes, and drama classes. Thee school had a Principal Advisory Board of students that worked in conjunction with administration to reduce academic and behavioral issues among the student population, and to implement student activities. I’m saddened that your academic experience, along with that of your peers have been usurped by greedy corporations that don’t understand the social, academic, or cultural issues of the students that they have attempted to educate. You are indeed a gem, a leader, and there are many supportive educators that support your stand.

  4. You should re-publish this piece in a national newspaper and in education journals. It is well-written and enlightening. We love to hear from young people, and you make the argument for diversity quite well.

  5. Well spoken Kenyatta. As a former New Orleans educator it is enlightening to see your candid representation of your school. Your voice is the most important one in the conversation. Keep it up!

  6. As an educated black man I find it exceedingly difficult to understand my own race.
    We are the first inline to take handouts and the last in line to “offer of hand”.
    Blacks are the sole source of our own misery and when someone comes along with any method of learning, involving discipline and rigorous testing we get contrite and stupid.

    And then theres this ridiculous notion that we need more black teachers teaching black students.
    Thats the purest form of racism that I’ve EVER heard!!!

    What we need is MORE black FAMILIES that have a father and mother diciplining their spawn, so the caring, educating WHITE teachers wont have to!!!

  7. First, I hope you will not discount what I have to say because of my race. This young woman is so strong, and is speaking out for herself and her peers. She deserves so much more. This is not about white teachers, although the staff should have diversity which would show that everyone is welcome and valued. Students should have models and role models that show what they can aspire to. They should also have people unlike themselves, so they will know we are all one race – human – and we are not so different. I always try my best to let students know I care about them, their families, the community. I try to make children laugh, smile and even sing every day I teach. I am so sad your school is a joyless place, where you don’t feel valued. It may not even be the teachers fault. Charter school teachers must do as they are told. They are at-will employees. I have seen very good, successful, caring teachers let go at charters because the principal decided they were not “team players” for teaching students in their own way. This is about bad management and keeping strict control. If you give kids really good, engaging learning activities and show them you truly care about them, they will usually get into it, and work to learn. I give respect, and I almost always get respect in return. I don’t need to resort to that level of strict control. I have taught in South Central Los Angeles, Inglewood, and a few other places. I knew many students had difficult lives outside school. I took these things into account, and adjusted when students needed it. I did not, however, let it lower my expectations for those students.

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