By Natalie Hopkinson
The principal wanted the boy expelled.
“We can’t teach every child because Clarence is a terror,” he pleaded to the discipline committee. “He disrupts the environment.”
But the CEO of the charter school network balked. “Terror? He’s a 9th-grader who got into a fight. What about the bottom line? We don’t get rid of kids for childish behavior. We teach them.”
The CEO, who like the principal, was a black man with a Ph.D added: “You know what happens to boys who are expelled. They’re out of school with nothing constructive to do. Eventually they see judges…This is about giving kids a chance.”
This exchange, described in “The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City,” written by Andre M. Perry, was fictional. But as revelations about mass expulsions at D.C. charter schools revealed, how to discipline is one of the realest, toughest calls reforming schools have to make.
Perry, who earned his doctorate from the University of Maryland-College Park, is the former CEO of New Orleans’ Capital One-New Beginnings Charter School Network, which emerged after Hurricane Katrina.
As a roman a clef, “The Garden Path” is the perfect vehicle for real-talk observations about school reform that have startling parallels to Washington D.C., New York, and many city school systems in the midst of radical change. Change doesn’t get any more radical than what happened after the storm, when more than 7,000 public school teachers and other employees were fired and national reformers flooded New Orleans to build a new school system.
A native of Pittsburgh, Perry had just taken a job as an education professor at the University of New Orleans before the storm. He thus found himself thrust into a leadership role in the university-run charter network and caught between the powerful, mostly white “reformers” who would eventually take over 70 percent of New Orleans public schools, and the entrenched black community with a powerful sense of culture and tradition.
Perry’s narrative about the resulting culture clashes finds plenty to criticize on both sides. For the feeling-bad-about-Katrina, MBA-wielding do-gooder white people, he blasts the “tendency or plan to leave once their service, pity, or contracts were exhausted.” He’s equally hard on the entrenched black “preservationists” who preferred that progress pass them by. “The people of Treme will decide!” One elder thunders. “I am tired of these Klansmen dictating to our children where they should go and who should teach them.” In one hilarious aside too crazy not to be true, a mother tries to sneak her obese daughter greasy chicken, violating his school’s health plan. When the black CEO puts his foot down, the mother pulls the child out and enrolls in another charter school. A lawsuit follows.
There are so many lessons public education advocates can learn from the book and Perry’s experiences in New Orleans. It is an easy read, and through simple storylines centering around the CEO, an innovative young black teacher and two star students who discover their voice, he gets at a critical but underexplored questions around education reform, race and culture.
Most pressing is this: what is the purpose of education? Is it to instigate thought—or to control? And does the answer change if the student is poor, black and lives in a city? Perry’s book clearly argues the answer is no. It blasts people on both sides of the debate who limit the life chances of the young people in their charge by treating them like prisoners.
It also decries the implied paternalism that underlies the reform/rescue narrative. “This city has been miseducated into thinking that black people can’t do for ourselves,” says one character, a former New Orleans teaching veteran who’d been blacklisted from a job in the new charter schools staffed mostly with young, white recruits for a Teach for America-like organization.
“Black people believe it. White people believe it. No matter what fancy innovation we bring to Orleans, we bark up the same magnolia.”
Perry drives home this message through the character Mr. Simon, a 35-year-old black New Orleans native who’s been fired from multiple charter schools because he refused to go along with their medieval policies. (Before firing him, one principal reminded him that Louisiana law still allowed corporal punishment.)
The CEO hires Mr. Simon, whose unorthodox style pushed students to think critically, to engage with ideas, question the system, and empowered them to make their own rules. He sends their intellect into overdrive, which incites them in ways that scare the rest of the faculty. He beefed with the traditionalist teachers who complained his students were too loud. They complained he wasn’t spending enough time on preparing for the test on which their careers depended. They even complained that he is raising the children’s hopes.
He was guilty as charged.
In time, readers learn the story behind Clarence, the rowdy 9th grader who nearly was expelled into the school-to-prison pipeline. When he wasn’t helping his best friend become class president, he was caring for his grandmother who was slowly deteriorating due to dementia. He, along with the whole freshman class eventually use the lessons from Mr. Simon and their high-profile success as a “turnaround school” to attract media attention to their demonstration against standardized testing. “No sell out; no tests!” their picket signs read.
Eventually the black CEO does choose a side. (As did Perry, who is now married and settled with three children in New Orleans and teaching at Loyola University. He resigned from the charter network weeks after the book was published.) While the book recognizes the urgency for change, it argues forcefully about the need for students and families to be full partners in the schools’ transformation, one that will last long after national guilt over Katrina runs out.
“We needed good ideas, but we also needed people to bring them to fruition and stay the course afterward,” he writes. “Change without community input spells danger and failure.”
It’s a simple enough lesson. Are reformers taking notes?