Corey Lacy spent “two or three years” in the ninth grade. When anger issues got the now-20-year-old NOLA resident booted from school and arrested on the street, he was told that he “never was going to graduate.”
Then Lacy enrolled in the NET Charter High School, an ungraded high school that provides “struggling high school students with the skills, confidence, and experiences necessary to succeed in the education and career paths of their choice.” He graduated last year.
The real heroes of education reform are students and their families. A charter school didn’t read a book. A voucher didn’t get a job after school to support her daughter. Although some are opting out, Common Core didn’t have to find a new school after being expelled. Yet as the tenth anniversary of Katrina approaches, advocates are feverishly personifying reform as a hero that has overcome.
Related: The lost children of Katrina
No – inanimate education reforms shouldn’t be seen as achieving, and they certainly shouldn’t be cast as heroes in the post-Katrina narrative.
With that said, the conditions in which children go to school give students prominence as the living-breathing heroes whom we should honor. The walks between homes, bus stops and schools would thoroughly test most policymakers, as would the numerous standardized tests students must pass to graduate. The journey of a hero occurs along those walks.
But the general question of are New Orleans schools better now than before the storm leads advocates and investors to push statistics that make reform the lead story. Consequently, anti-reformers offer numerical rebuttals to discredit specific reforms. All the while, the people who are actually driving change are lost in the scrum. Worse, polemic reports are skipping over the seemingly intractable conditions that made Katrina one of the worst man-made tragedies in the United States.
Many New Orleans public school students would love to have the discretionary time and resources to fight a rhetorical and statistical war on New Orleans education policy. Getting an education while in poverty is simply harder. The correlation between poverty and college attainment is well documented. According to the Data Center, 39 percent of New Orleans children live in poverty – 17 percentage points higher than the U.S. average. So before we coronate the leaders of education reform, let’s not forget that poverty is still king in the city.
While advocates argue the rate of suspensions and expulsions in New Orleans, the school-to-prison pipeline that was laid before Katrina still exists. One in seven black men and boys are in prison or on parole. The 14,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school or not working reflect a lack of opportunity in and out of school.
These are the conditions students still face. “Growth” has become a rhetorical device to convey victory. And victories are awarded to individuals who are made into heroes. Students who have overcome multiple suspensions, expulsions and arrests to eventually graduate put being heroic in perspective.
NET Charter School grad Lacy interned with one of NET’s partners, Grow Dat, a nonprofit that engages a diverse group of individuals in the “meaningful work of growing healthy food.” Lacy says he learned that he could hold down a job because of the education he received at the NET.
“I used to get mad real quick,” said Lacy in a NET produced video. Given the circumstances many students live in, one can see why a student has anger issues. But Lacy learned how to manage his emotions through an intensive/intrusive relationship with his teachers who delivered an academic curriculum along with personal development and job training.
Lacy’s full story does not tell a pretty a tale of schools, neighborhoods and the criminal justice system. But it does reframe what it means to be a hero in New Orleans and what it means when educational innovation meets a demand.
So when reporters descend upon New Orleans’ streets like summer rain, we should direct them to the people and places where heroism lives. A critical examination of how students live reminds us why education in New Orleans needed a radical change. But the lived experiences of students provide educators with a sober reminder how far we are from being heroes.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.