Dispersed and Unequal


Mrs. Sherry Brock, East Baton Rouge Middle School Principal of the Year for 2005–2006, is a Delta Burke–style dynamo in bright colors and oversize beads. She has outfitted her spacious office at Westdale Middle School with a lush floral carpet, silk and fresh flowers, and large leather chairs, so that the institutional white cinder-block walls and fluorescent lighting will fade. She is forever picking up the phone to summon a member of her staff, then rushing to one of her two office doors to call them even quicker. “Listen, baby, I talk very fast,” she says to me. “Valerie! What’s my total number of Katrina enrollees right now?—thank you, baby. Put 80, because I can assure you by next week there will be 85.” That’s out of her total sixth, seventh, and eighth grade enrollment of around 950.

In the two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, as Baton Rouge swelled with evacuees, Mrs. Brock hired five new teachers and redid all of her class schedules. She personally greeted each new Katrina student—she describes them as “dazed” and “scared to death”—and made sure they had the uniforms and supplies they needed. “We have been unindated with offers of help,” she says, from her own students’ parents and from across the country. She speaks highly of the schools superintendent, Charlotte Placide, whom she calls “such a good leader,” and who is using her financial background to make sure every extra hurricane expense is accounted for, with later federal and state reimbursement in mind.

“My students, they never worry about things not working,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “Because it never does not work here. I can say that because I’ve been the principal 30 years. I’ve got the best administrative staff in the parish—not just in the parish, anywhere. I’ll put them up against anybody,” she says. “This was no hill for a climber. It’s easy to do ’cause we know what to do.”

Westdale just happens to be located across the road from the main school board office on South Foster Drive, and the media visit so often that the students signed blanket publicity releases long before the storm. Mrs. Brock introduces three students—two white, one black—who say how happy they are to welcome the Katrina kids to their school. “To me, they’re so brave,” says Emily Wright, who has long auburn hair and clutches a purse with a picture of kittens on it. “They fit in so well. They’re so nice. They have so many amazing stories. It’s made me feel so blessed. We have a new girl on our cheerleading squad. The first thing we did was give her a big hug. She has so many new cheers to teach us.”

I attended East Baton Rouge Parish public schools from kindergarten through ninth grade, so I came back with a skeptical eye. Still, any visitor might naturally conclude that this district is doing very well by the thousands of children Katrina deposited on its doorstep, in a drama that brought America’s class and race problems to the front page. The sad truth is, the school system these students came from was so bad—wracked by allegations of corruption, its management entrusted to out-of-town consultants, its performance the lowest-ranked in the low-ranked state—that many concluded the kids would be better off anywhere else at all. “A lot of [schools] we never should have had open,” Jimmy Fahrenholtz, himself a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, told the San Jose Mercury News in mid September. “I wanted to tear this system apart two years ago. God answered my prayers.”

Maybe so. “I feel optimistic for these kids from the Orleans Parish School System,” said Robin Delamatre, a 25-year veteran New Orleans educator. “These poor children may come from a failing system to a school system that will really support them.”

But across town from Westdale, a very different story is unfolding. It turns out that while scrambling to accommodate its new students, East Baton Rouge Parish administrators have made choices that to some extent reproduce the savage inequalities found in the students’ home districts and across the United States.

The former Scotlandville Middle School is located between Southern University and the airport, at the northwest edge of a city that has been sprawling south and east. It’s in a mostly black neighborhood, where chain-link fences surround tiny bungalows with old couches on the porch. The school was closed last year and the building scheduled for demolition, until the district superintendent decided to create two new schools to house some of the kids displaced by Katrina. The new Scotlandville school has approximately 800 students, all displaced; the vast majority of the faculty and staff also come from Orleans and surrounding parishes. The “attendance zone” for Scotlandville Middle includes the children residing in the River Center, the city’s largest shelter, eight and a half miles away.

The sign on the building reads, “SCOTLANDVILLE S HOO.” None of the students trooping between classes are wearing uniforms. In the front office, the Formica counter is chipped, showing green and orange layers underneath. There are water stains on the acoustic-tile ceiling, the computers look several years old, and the only decoration in the room is a pair of posters printed by the school and bearing the legends “appreciate DIVERSITY” and “learn TOLERANCE.” The principal, Ms. Clara Joseph, strides out of the back room with her straightened hair hanging limply and a look of exhaustion on her face. “What do you need? I hate to be rude, and I’m not being rude, but it is very busy here. I am running,” she says, before taking the phone from her assistant. “I’m not going to be at no principals’ meeting!” she shouts. “My school is not even running! You tell Charlotte”—meaning Superintendent Placide—”that if she wants to meet she can come here. Who’s going to run the school while I’m gone? It’s no way. And the master schedule’s not even done, we don’t have all the children in class, they have dummy schedules. They’re talking about coming in here to do a renovation—there’s no room in the classrooms now! It’s no way I can come to a meeting.”

Before Ms. Joseph has a moment to attend to a reporter’s questions, two teachers rush into the office, and a panting boy comes in after them, all to report the same news. Some boys wearing the uniform of a different school entered a classroom and sat down. When challenged by the teacher, they ran out, turning over furniture and banging on lockers. According to some of the students, the intruders said, “We came to take our school back.”

At Scotlandville, all but three of the teachers are from Orleans and surrounding parishes, and they too are stressed and displaced by the storm. They have been dropped into a uniquely tough working environment. “Because the school was closed down, we had to do it all,” says Ms. Joseph, who was promoted from an assistant principal post at Baton Rouge’s Sherwood Middle. “This building was a shell. We had to get furniture in here, get supplies for the students. It still needs a lot of renovations done to it. Painting, some minor structural things, the wiring, the intercom system.” Class offerings—”the basics,” she says—include keyboarding and home ec.

As of a “warm-body count” on September 28, of the 8,000 students who have registered in Baton Rouge as “homeless and transient” due to Katrina, fewer than 4,500 are showing up to class. The majority of those 4,500are being folded into schools like Westdale, with a ready-made community and resources in place to support them. But 1,100, primarily those who first landed in the city’s shelters, have been assigned to the two newly created schools, the one in Scotlandville and Mayfair Elementary. That means that the poorest and neediest of the overwhelmingly black New Orleans students are going to school in decrepit buildings, where a newly assembled teaching staff has had to perform a year’s worth of curriculum and schedule planning in two weeks.

Some older New Orleans kids from the same population may not be going to school at all. “The majority showing up are at the elementary school level,” says Ms. St. Julien at the superintendent’s office. “I’m from New Orleans so I have my own personal opinion as to why that is the case. Young adults may have been displaced from their families and gone to the Superdome,” she says, and may not be answering to parental authority now. “Parents of young children, once they get their kids in school, can then start going to work and doing what they need to do. It’s my personal guess that East Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Houston are going to get a boost on the high-school level in a month, because then they’ll be truant.”

Outside the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge on a hot Tuesday morning, two younger boys are horsing around while two older teenagers load a cooler into a car trunk. Marshan Bowden, 15; and his little brother Michael, 11; and cousin Joel, 13, all in clean white undershirts, are seeing off a new friend, Genaro Gutierrez, 16. They met in the shelter while playing football, and now Gutierrez is going back home to Metairie, in Jefferson Parish. When asked why they are not in school, Marshan shakes his head. “I don’t want to. I just don’t want to go. Just don’t.” His cousin pipes up, “You’re scared of the kids there!” earning a halfhearted swat.

The Bowden boys, their mother, and an aunt rode out the storm in New Orleans at a Days Inn hotel downtown, then waited about a day for a bus at the convention center. “It was beaucoup trash in there,” Marshan, who wears a pink plastic rosary around his neck and has a multicolored version of a Yankees cap on, says. When asked if he saw any fighting, he says no. “People were just sitting, waiting for the buses.” Their bus took them to Arkansas, where they stayed for not quite two weeks. They even attended a school there for a few days, where “we were the only black kids,” says Joel. Then, for some reason, they were sent back down to the shelter here.

Marshan had just started as a ninth-grader at Joseph S. Clark Senior High in Mid-City. He said he liked school all right and especially football: “I was on the line to play middle linebacker.” He thinks he’d rather wait to resume school when he can go back home, whenever that is.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, the images of destitute black families walking out of town along railroad tracks irresistibly recalled Reconstruction. Now these kids’ resettlement experiences invoke Brown v. Board of Education. The Katrina evacuation is the largest ever forced removal of African American students from a failed school system. The only problem is, it’s unclear whether the systems they are entering will do better by them than the ones they left.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school district just happens to be the site of the longest-running school desegregation lawsuit in U.S. history. Filed in 1956 against the Justice Department on behalf of a small group of students and signed on to by Thurgood Marshall when he was with the NAACP, the suit languished in the court of a segregationist judge for two and a half decades. His successor, U.S. District Judge John Parker, ordered busing to begin in 1981, and his was hardly the last word. In a story that has become familiar all over the country, white students quickly left the district, bound for Catholic and Episcopal schools (Louisiana has the highest proportion of students in private schools of any state) or simply headed for the suburbs. Baker and Zachary, to the north, broke away to form their own school districts, which have higher ratings and higher per-pupil expenditures.

East Baton Rouge schools, which were 75 percent white when the suit was filed and 60 percent white in 1980, were 72 percent black last year. Tax funding has declined along with white enrollment, and the system is perpetually squeezed for cash—between 1974 and 2002, no new schools were built. In 1996, a system of magnet schools replaced 15 years of busing, and in 2003, the case finally reached a settlement, which involved new formulas for parceling out the few whites who were left.

Jonathan Kozol, who has spent 40 years documenting the disparities in our public school system, has just published a new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, which he called in a recent
Salon interview “the angriest book I’ve written in my life.” He finds thatBrown v. Board of Education has failed; schools are now just as segregated as they were in 1968, and black and Latino schools are still dramatically inferior and underfunded, receiving a national average of $1,000 less per student each year. Further, he argues that the inflexible testing requirements imposed by No Child Left Behind create a sense of “siege” in the poorest schools, punishing them by withholding funds and forcing teachers to teach by rote and to the test.

Kozol’s work is remarkable among white progressives for its insistent focus on race as the heart of our education problem, and indeed, our society. He told Salon that most liberals prefer to shift the topic to class because it is “less toxic,” because “racial injustice has its roots in the sins of American history.”

Even within the city’s public schools, there is a means of separating many of the white children from most of the African Americans. It is called the Gifted and Talented program. Before my family moved to New Orleans, I attended Baton Rouge public schools in the ’80s and early ’90s, being tested and designated as “gifted” meant I studied in majority-white, Asian, and South Asian classes within majority-black schools, taking advantage of the best teachers and resources. As of 2004, black students were more underrepresented in the gifted program than any other racial group; they made up 76 percent of all students in the Baton Rouge schools but just 38 percent of students in gifted programs. Whites, 20 percent of all public school students, were 45 percent of all gifted classes. Students make it into the program through voluntary testing, which the parents must request. I remember back in elementary school, the testers accidentally chose a (black) boy named Jackson instead of my (white) friend’s younger brother of the same name for testing in kindergarten; the boy ended up qualifying for the program.

Despite the desperate rush to place students anywhere possible, Gifted and Talented students from Orleans Parish have received special consideration, and they’re assigned to gifted programs at schools like Westdale.

“With Gifted and Talented, it’s state law that we honor that IEP,” explains Taifa St. Julien, the one-woman communications department for the East Baton Rouge school superintendent’s office. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program, and it denotes the specialized carbon-copy progress reports that must be filled out quarterly on each student designated as either Gifted and Talented or special ed.

Principal Sherry Brock readily admits that the high performance of her new students has made it that much easier to welcome them.

“Immediately, my first concern was testing, my test scores. I didn’t know what I was getting [in terms of students],” she says. “But most of the students that we’ve registered are Gifted and Talented. Our school performance score was 98.6 before; we want to break 100 next year. Now I’m not concerned about the test scores at all.”

Worries about accountability may also have played a role in the decision to open brand-new schools rather than add teachers and students to existing schools. That’s because President Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy imposes sanctions on every school that fails to improve its test standing each year, a requirement known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). By the state’s own accountability measure, the schools in Orleans Parish have the lowest performance scores in the state; East Baton Rouge Parish is 10 places higher on the list of 65. The state department of education has already asked federal education secretary Margaret Spellings to limit AYP requirements for 2005–2006 to students enrolled in the same school for two years. “I am reluctant to waive, even partially, AYP or approve broad changes in state AYP definitions at this time,” Spellings responded, calling AYP “the linchpin of the No Child Left Behind accountability system.”

When it comes to the new schools, however, AYP would be hard to apply. “None of the old students are there. So you can’t compare performance,” says Meg Casper at Louisiana’s department of education. She says the state board of ed has not yet decided whether it will administer its state LEAP tests to the displaced schools at all. The tests are usually done in March, and everyone holds out hope that most schools in Jefferson and some in Orleans Parish will be operating by then. “These things are still up in the air,” says Casper.

The experiences of the students sent to Baton Rouge are a test case of Kozol’s contention that racial segregation, exacerbated by testing, is the central problem in our public school system. Overt racism does not seem at work; the African-American East Baton Rouge superintendent, Charlotte Placide, is making the direct decisions about the treatment of these students, and Ms. Sherry Brock, Ms. Clara Joseph, and their respective staffs are each obviously working as hard as is humanly possible to teach their students with the tools at their disposal. Yet it is very easy to see how the continued structure of segregation is hurting the chances that something good can come from this disaster, for those who most need a second chance.