In “Frederick Douglass High School in New Orleans: School Closings, Race, and the Dangers of Policy without History,” Kristen Buras quotes New Orleans’ school superintendent Paul Vallas from 2008—back when technocracy and privatization became mixed with the New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Vallas was working with Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s state school superintendent, to impose a new school master plan that set out to close public schools and turn many of the buildings over to charter school operators. When someone at a community meeting, which had been convened to discuss the potential closure of Frederick Douglass High School, brought up the racially embedded history of the school, Vallas responded: “Kids don’t know they’re going to school at a historical landmark. They just know they’re going to a building where the electricity doesn’t work, where the technology has been antiquated… I’m not going to get involved in the politics of where schools should go. I’m going to get involved in the politics of what schools should be.”
The building of the all-black, Frederick Douglass High School had been allowed to deteriorate. Buras recounts the school’s history—the founding of Nicholls High School in 1913, its rebuilding by the Public Works Administration in 1938-1939, and its decline through the years after Brown v. Board of Education as as white students moved to private academies and the school became all-black. The school, whose facilities were allowed to decline over time, was renamed after Frederick Douglass in the mid-1990s. Buras summarizes the assumptions under the state takeover in 2005 and the subsequent charterization of the New Orleans’ schools: “(C)harter school advocates in New Orleans criticize traditional public schools, especially black ones, for their alleged ‘failure’ without connecting racism and inequitable state education policies to the problems experienced by those schools.”
The 2005 hurricane did little damage to the Frederick Douglass building, and the school had re-opened as a comprehensive public high school post-Katrina, to serve the students in the Bywater section of the Upper Ninth Ward. Only after the school was turned over to the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Charter network in 2010, was private money found to upgrade the facility. Buras quotes Vallas: “If a charter high school like KIPP goes in the Douglass building, the organization might bring outside money to help renovate the building.” She adds: “Again, no consideration was given to the question of why state and local officials (had) failed to maintain the building or why master planners decided Douglass did not merit renovations.”
Buras profiles the remarkable and transformational writing program launched at Frederick Douglass High School in 1998, a decade prior to the school’s eventual closure: “Douglass was one of the lowest-ranked public high schools in New Orleans when SAC (Students at the Center) joined the school in 1998.” Students at the Center was launched by Jim Randels, later joined by Kalamu Ya Salaam, as an effort to engage students in reflection as an experiment in critical pedagogy: “At Douglass, SAC classes consist of teachers and students sitting in a circle, sharing their stories and writings, listening carefully, and engaging in critical dialogue—practices informed by an appreciation of the connection between reflection and action. That is, ‘the best education is a collective and social, rather than an individual endeavor….’ Randels and Salaam are mentoring as well as learning from a generation of student writers and storytellers in new Orleans, whose work is closely connected with the surrounding community.”
Students in the SAC program after the 2005 hurricane have had their work published (Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans), and the program has developed a strong community presence despite the ultimate turnover of the Frederick Douglass building itself to KIPP. Over the years, Students at the Center has been able to find a presence in some other schools across the city: “A lineage, in fact, has developed: more experienced SAC students mentor non-SAC peers in their own high schools, and some work with elementary-aged students at nearby public elementary schools. Graduates of SAC have returned as teachers in the program after completing college degrees.”
Buras concludes: “Counterstories must be told in opposition to dominant narratives of reform… (C)ounterstories are accounts that challenge white majoritarian narratives and are based on the experiential knowledge of people of color. They are essential in the context of New Orleans, where racially and economically destructive reforms have been packaged as a successful model to be replicated nationally.” “Douglass’ closure surely undermined the community’s efforts to determine its future. Situating the school’s struggles within a history of white supremacy would have suggested a different set of actions.”
Buras’s article and the book from which it was adapted are very hard to find. The piece is adapted from Buras’s 2015 book, Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. Published by Routlage, the book is expensive. You can find the article in the July-December 2015 issue of SOULS: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. SOULS, an academic journal housed at Columbia University, is paywalled. I urge you to look for Buras’ 2015 book or her article in SOULS at a library. You may also want to look for Buras’s excellent (and easier to find) 2010 book, Pedagogy, Politics and the Privatized City, published by Teachers College Press.