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Plessy students use play masks and mustaches as costumes. Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

NEW ORLEANS — Six years ago, author and creative writing teacher Anne Gisleson was looking for a school for her 4-year-old son, Otto, who attended a private Lutheran preschool in her Bywater neighborhood. But for kindergarten, she wanted him to attend a public school, with kids from all backgrounds and neighborhoods.

“It’s something valuable,” she said about the opportunity for diversity in public school. “You can’t buy it and you can’t teach it. It’s there in the hallways.”

She was not happy with the first school she and her husband chose, but found a match in 2014 when a spot opened at Homer A. Plessy Community School. The school, located in the nearby 7th Ward, had opened its doors to kids in pre-K through second grade the year before.

The school wasn’t perfect. It was new, had very little funding, the kinks were still being ironed out and officials were struggling to attract students. Educators made do with what Gisleson called “improvisational” tactics, using cardboard and crayons in lieu of more sophisticated materials, such as smartboards or expensive art supplies.

But despite the drawbacks, Gisleson thought Plessy would be a good fit for her son. The school focused on the arts and offered a project-based curriculum, and Otto had always been creative. Plus, Gisleson liked the idea that Otto would be surrounded by kids who came from racial and socio-economic backgrounds that were different from his own.

“It was totally diverse,” said Gisleson, who is white. “I thought, ‘This feels like what a New Orleans school should feel like.’”

Fast-forward to 2017, and Plessy still prides itself on being one of just a handful of schools in the city that has purposefully sought to integrate its student body. The goal is laid out in its mission statement, which says the school aims to have “hallways that reflect the same diversity we see on our sidewalks.” The school’s logo is a railway car, a nod to early efforts to end segregation and to the man for whom the school is named.

“If I go to a school that I see and it isn’t diverse, then it’s not the school for us.”

In 1892, a mixed-race man named Homer Adolph Plessy boarded a train and defiantly sat in the “whites only” section. He was arrested when he refused to move. He appealed the law that mandated his ejection, and his case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices there not only ruled against Plessy, but issued a now-notorious opinion that established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which served for more than half a century as the justification for legal segregation in almost all aspects of American life. It was not until 1954, with the decision in Brown v Board of Education, that de jure segregation in public schools was ruled unconstitutional. Although he lost, Plessy’s actions would serve to inspire future generations in the civil rights movement.

Plessy students plant a garden in the school’s back yard Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

Over the years Plessy’s namesake school has managed to achieve more diversity than most in New Orleans, but is now struggling to retain upper middle class, white families, according to Ben McLeish, the president of Plessy’s governing board.

Having a mission of “hallways that reflect the city’s streets” doesn’t translate into having a school that is equally divided along racial or socio-economic lines. But unless Plessy can better retain wealthy families, and middle class white families, its diversity may be threatened. As is, the school’s demographic mix is dominated by students of color and by children living in poverty. Last fall, about 54 percent of its students were black, less than 24 percent were white and about 14 percent were Hispanic. Sixty-nine percent were economically disadvantaged.

A complicated confluence of obstacles have made it difficult to keep white and middle-class families enrolled. The school’s budget has been impacted by its financial disadvantage as a Type 1 Charter School, or a startup, which means its charter organization is responsible for building renovations and costs. Interest in the school was also affected by its location in a dangerous neighborhood. School officials tout the arts-based curriculum and the joy they say it brings students, but acknowledge that side-lining test preparation has caused test scores to suffer and lowered the performance grades the school receives from the state education department.

New Orleans has always been a deeply divided school system. As of 2014, it had the highest percentage of students in private schools in the nation, with wealth playing a significant factor in attendance of the exclusive schools. The changes that came after Hurricane Katrina had the potential to alter that. For the first time, students could choose to apply to any school they wanted to, anywhere in the city.

But more than 10 years after Katrina, segregation is still stark. About 80 percent of New Orleans public schools served a population that was at least 80 percent economically disadvantaged last year, and more than 75 percent of the schools had populations made up of at least 95 percent students of color, according to New Schools for New Orleans.

Related: Should an urban school serving black and Hispanic students look like schools for affluent white kids?

Plessy’s difficulties in attracting new families and maintaining its diversity illustrate how hard it is to erase the racial and economic lines dividing New Orleans. But educators and parents say they’re not giving up on their mission yet. Research has shown that racial and economic integration can benefit all students, whether they’re black or white.

Plessy students use upside-down buckets as drums during an in-classroom music lesson Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

Gisleson thinks being “diverse by design” is something more parents are looking for. She believes it will be key to crafting schools capable of teaching to the whole student, and not just teaching what’s on state tests.

“Sidewalks in the city can be rough, and difficult. It’s not going to be ‘Kumbaya’ all the time,” Gisleson said. “But if our kids can get a head start on learning all ways of living within a city, they are going to be so much further ahead when comes to dealing with realities of that city.”

“Different types” of learning

Plessy’s strategy to attract a diverse group of applicants has relied largely on an old model: creating special programming likely to appeal as much to white middle class parents as to the poorer black families that live in the school’s immediate vicinity. Magnet schools formed in the aftermath of desegregation in the 1970s used the same formula, and Plessy has sought to build up the reputation of its arts and music program, supported by a partnership with the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.

Through that foundation, Plessy is a participant in the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ Turnaround Arts initiative, which donates supplies, helps provide art every day and in-classroom instruction from world-famous artists. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation also partners with Plessy, and for three years has used a community grant to fund strings instruction for students under violinist and violist Amelia Clingman.

The arts are what prompted Jonique Johnson, 35, to make Plessy her first choice on the kindergarten application for her 4-year-old son, Nelson Shoemaker. Johnson, who is black, currently lives in New Orleans’ 9th Ward with her husband, who is of mixed-race, and their son.

She appreciates the school’s focus on the musical traditions of New Orleans, and a curriculum that will allow her son to have fun while learning.

About 80 percent of New Orleans public schools served a population that was at least 80 percent economically disadvantaged last year, and more than 75 percent of the schools had populations made up of at least 95 percent students of color.

“I’m not as big into a rigorous-type of academic environment because I just don’t think it’s good for my son,” Johnson said. “So having him at Plessy makes a little more sense, because it’s an arts-integrated curriculum.”

She particularly admires the fact that her son, who is fascinated with music, will be able to study for free under well-known musicians — like Trombone Shorty — who have partnered with Plessy to teach core curriculum through the arts.

“The culture in and of itself lends itself to diversity,” Johnson said about the school’s art programs.

Related: New Orleans’ uphill battle for more black and homegrown teachers

That diversity is also a plus for Johnson. As a child, she went to Eleanor McMain Secondary School, a school in New Orleans that was racially and socio-economically diverse. She said she can’t imagine her son experiencing anything else.

Plessy students teach about diversity and equal rights in art and classroom lessons. Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

“That’s the expectation that we have of any school we are going to send our child to,” Johnson said. “If I go to a school that I see and it isn’t diverse, then it’s not the school for us.”

At Plessy, diversity is not just a numbers game, it’s also part of the curriculum. Classroom discussions shift from history lessons about race and equity to students grappling with how those same themes are playing out in current events, said Plessy’s principal, Joan Reilly. While showing prospective parents several student self-portraits, in varying shades of beige and brown, she gave an example of this subject shift. Reilly said kids naturally started talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of diversity during a class on the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“What we’re teaching kids here is it’s not important what you look like. It doesn’t define who you’re going to be,” Reilly said. “What matters is where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. And what’s really important is your character and what’s in your heart. That you can get together and you can change the world.”

The elimination of area attendance zones after Katrina has made it easier for parents to send their children outside of their neighborhood, but other developments may have simultaneously undermined efforts to make schools more diverse. In New Orleans, as elsewhere, schools are increasingly judged by test scores, which tend to track the socio-economic status of a school’s students. Wealthier students tend to go to higher-performing schools.

In Plessy’s case, the school received a D score from the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) for the past two years. Last year, its performance score was 52.4, out of a possible 150 points. Only 19 percent of students were on track to reach mastery and above on state tests, the 2016 data showed. The district average is 27 percent, and the state average is 33 percent. In 2015, Plessy’s level of proficiency was even worse: Only 13 percent of all students were on track academically, according to the LDOE.

Plessy students get instruction from professional musicians through a series of partnerships with local and national organizations. Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

Meghann McCracken, a writer and digital media artist, is considering Plessy for her 4-year-old son. McCracken, who is white and lives in the Bywater area, says the most important thing for her son Arlo is an education that prepares him for success in the real world. Diversity is second. Her belief that Arlo should be exposed to a diverse student body takes a back seat to his need for an education that will prepare him to excel in a technical or academic job. And she’s not sure Plessy can deliver that.

“I love the arts-integrated approach, but do I want to set him up to be on the musician-bartender path?” McCracken said. “It’s a very uncertain, and very difficult, path.”

“Parents have said to me, ‘It took a lot for me to get out of the car when I looked around at the neighborhood.’ But once they got inside, they realized what’s happening inside the building doesn’t reflect what is happening on the outside.”

Right now, Arlo attends the private Waldorf School of New Orleans, which, like Plessy, integrates art into education. He can stay in pre-K another year before he must go to kindergarten, she said, so she’s decided to keep him at Waldorf while she continues to navigate city’s school system.

Because of her skepticism about charter schools, homeschooling is among the options she’s considering for Arlo, she said. “Every one of these schools has to go out and be its own little business,” McCracken said. “The amount of selling the schools need to do — it puts a lot of pressure onto the schools.”

New location, new opportunities

Plessy students frequently incorporate the train car logo into collages and other artwork. The train symbolizes the work of Homer A. Plessy, an early Civil Rights hero who inspired generations of activists. Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

Educators at Plessy say one of the most difficult obstacles to recruiting parents to the school ironically relates to the reason the school opened in the first place — to serve families in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, an area long known for gun violence and drug activity. Central City and the 7th Ward account for less than 7 percent of the New Orleans’ population but 19 percent of its shootings, according to one report,

McLeish, a Presbyterian deacon, established a church in a neighborhood near the school’s current site, then helped form Plessy as part of what he called a “long-term recovery plan” for New Orleans, envisioned by several neighbors and community members who felt committed to rebuilding the city they loved.*

McLeish said he wanted kids in his neighborhood, including his own children, to be able to go to a good school without having to drive all the way Uptown.

“Schools used to be community centers. We wanted that to be restored,” McLeish said.

Plessy teachers aim to empower students through art Credit: Courtesy of Homer A. Plessy Community School

Having a racially and economically mixed school was also always part of the plan. ““We realized the value in having diversity,” he said.

Related: A racially charged assault spurs schools to rally behind Portland’s large refugee community

Marrying the two goals has proven to be much harder that McLeish and other Plessy leaders imagined, and highlights one of the major challenges to spurring more school integration citywide. Parents generally don’t want to send their kids to schools in dangerous area.

Julie Hanks, the school’s director of development, says Plessy’s neighborhood has been a deterrent for families. “Parents have said to me, ‘It took a lot for me to get out of the car when I looked around at the neighborhood,’” she said. “But once they got inside, they realized what’s happening inside the building doesn’t reflect what is happening on the outside.”

The location problem will be eliminated next year, however. Plessy is moving to the French Quarter, to a red schoolhouse on St. Philip Street that used to be home to KIPP’s McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts, another public school dedicated to arts integration.

It’s a move the school has been marketing with billboards around the city, strategically placed to reach families in the French Quarter and its smaller, surrounding neighborhoods, Hanks said. The hope is that the move will catapult the school into the national spotlight, spurring growth and attracting a “broader base” of students that will add to the school’s diversity.

“I think it can’t help but build awareness,” Hanks said, adding that everybody knows the French Quarter.

The question is whether the school can stick with its other mission, to serve the more disadvantaged students of the 7th Ward. Hanks has promised that Plessy will still serve its old neighborhood, in part by providing busing for students living there. She also believes 7th Ward parents will be just as likely as wealthier parents to embrace the new French Quarter building.

“If you’re from Uptown, or the 9th Ward, or Lakeview or the East, everybody has a chance to come into the French Quarter and feel a part of the city as a whole,” she said. “Which is also what we are hoping to reflect in our hallways: that all are welcome.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about New Orleans.

*Correction: This story has been updated to correct an editing error incorrectly suggesting the church had moved.

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