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A tale of two schools

The following package of stories and opinion was reported and written by students in a news writing class at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New Orleans

It’s hard to tell whether the chipped paint on the walls of Alcee Fortier High School has been worn away with age or shattered by the incomprehensible chatter, shrieks and squawks that resound throughout every hall.

The buzz and cackle of 1,200 students’ voices (depending on how many decided to show up) doesn’t cease once classes begin. Many students continue to roam, aimlessly and loudly, about the halls well after the morning bell has sounded.

Whatever the reason, such behavior is clearly not a problem for their peers three miles across town at Benjamin Franklin High School, a magnet school.

Here the students walk on immaculate floors through freshly painted halls on their way to air-conditioned classrooms occupied by no more than 15 students.

Here, no students amble in halls after the bell sounds.

The students at Fortier mostly, if not all, are black. Those at Franklin are mostly white with a mixture of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. This difference in the racial makeup of these schools, the disparity in the condition of the schools and the quality of education they offer, is the subject of great controversy in New Orleans. The situation is repeated in public schools across the country (see accompanying story), great disparities in city after city, often played out along racial lines.

Critics say that the magnet school entrance tests are racially biased -- that the magnet school system fosters racial discrimination.

Perhaps the students at Fortier, reputedly the city’s worst high school for discipline, ignore the bell because their overcrowded classrooms have no air conditioning and they are unwilling to sit in a stiflingly hot room with 34 other students on a typically humid New Orleans day. Or maybe they disregard the bell because no administrator or teacher has reprimanded them for their behavior or seen to it that they report to class.

The blatant differences between magnet and non-magnet New Orleans high schools are significant in another way: college attendance.

A recent Southern Education Association study in Southern states found that the number of black students matriculating to college is either at a standstill or declining. African-Americans are underrepresented in college preparatory courses. That’s the pattern in New Orleans, a city of 500,000 that is 65 percent black with a school system 93 percent African-American.

While 100 percent of Franklin’s 900 graduates go on to college, a Fortier guidance counselor says that 20 percent of the school’s 1,000 students go on to four-year colleges. That figure is not surprising, given the average Fortier student grade point average of 1.5.

Not surprising

New Orleans school board member Henry Julian is not surprised by such findings. “There is a much smaller [than representative] percentage of African-Americans at a magnet school like Franklin. If there are not enough college preparatory programs within a non-magnet school, then it’s likely that these students won’t have too much encouragement to attend college,” he said.

In 1996, two complaints were filed with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that the magnet school system was racially discriminatory. Federal officials instructed the school board to revise the magnet admissions policies as a result of the complaints.

Since that time, debate over the issue has been incessant. The school board’s response to the complaint, which banned admissions tests said to be culturally biased, satisfied the Justice Department but not all of the critics of magnet school entrance policies.

One major problem non-magnet schools have to deal with that is not necessarily an issue at magnet schools is discipline. In a math class at Fortier, students talked back to the teacher and walked in and out of the classroom without regard for the lesson being taught or the teacher. At the same time, other students roamed the halls, yelling and laughing.

Fortier has gained such a bad reputation, it was recently targeted for additional state funding. But the bad reputation wasn’t always the case.

“When my parents and grandparents were growing up, this was the school,” said Jon Jacobs, a Fortier special education teacher. “That’s why you have senior citizens that are upset about hearing Fortier’s name in the news and hearing negative things about the school,” he said.

“Back then, it was run with an iron fist. If you talked, you were out. If you dropped a pin on the floor, you would hear it hit the ground. Of course, times changed,” Jacobs said.

Tom Tews, the Ben Franklin magnet school’s principal, sees discipline at his school in an entirely different context: “Our discipline problems are ‘Why aren’t you working harder?’ not ‘Why aren’t you coming to school?’ or ‘Why are you hitting that person?’ ” According to Tews, it is the very entrance exams that have been outlawed that weed out poorly disciplined students. Unlike critics, Tews believes the weeding out process is a positive thing.

“We certainly have an advantage in that our students have to have an entrance exam and we have retention policies, whereas the [non-magnet] schools have to take everybody, including the kid that’s going to prison and the physically and mentally challenged. Here, most kids want to be here and are motivated to do academic work,” Tews said.

Just last spring, Franklin administrators dealt with their first weapon at school, an automatic pistol found in a gym bag. At Fortier, 20 percent of the students have been sentenced to criminal probation, and some seem to be proud of that accomplishment.

Ronald Ayler, Fortier assistant principal in charge of discipline, has a theory as to why criminal behavior is seen as a good thing to students at the school: “They are proud to achieve. Achievement is achievement. Whether it’s negative or positive, it’s achievement,” he said.

But why is it so hard for these students, many of whom are talented, to make positive achievements? In part, money. “There’s really a need for more resources in non-magnet schools. Non-magnet schools have poorer supplies of educational resources than magnet schools, like textbooks,” school board member Julian said.

New Orleans isn’t the only city with inadequately funded schools. Most major American cities suffer from similar disparities among their schools (see accompanying story). Fortier doesn’t even have enough books. Students often receive photocopies of textbook materials, and textbooks must remain at school or students go without.

Fortier’s small library doubles as a classroom during part of the school day.

Graffiti-sprayed bathrooms are so old that some are not usable. As for science equipment and labs, “it’s like walking back into the ’40s,” Jacobs said.

At Franklin, by contrast, students move from school to home with their textbooks in tow. If books are lost, students are required to replace them. Franklin’s library houses computer terminals. Students can take classes in a state-of-the-art TV studio and perform in plays in the school’s new theater. Computer labs feature newly upgraded hardware. The student newspaper office has been well-equipped, courtesy of a donor. Such advantages highlight another magnet/non-magnet issue: parent involvement.

At Franklin, not only did parents raise the $300,000 it cost to upgrade the school’s computers, but they also pay $300 a year per student to hire the seven buses that transport students to and from school. “Magnet schools tend to have parents of students that help provide adequate resources for those students,” Julian said. At Fortier and other non-magnet schools, parent involvement ranges from minimal to nonexistent.

Compounding the problems at non-magnet schools is the number of students enrolled. By law, no more than 33 students are to be assigned to one teacher at a given time. At Fortier, some classrooms are crammed with up to 40 students. At Franklin -- the state allows for one additional teacher for every 30 gifted students in any school -- the student-faculty ratio is 15 to 1.

For schools like Fortier, where many students work eight-hour-a-day jobs and a substantial number of female students are mothers, the problems seem to compound one another. Some students, including many of those who have been convicted of criminal activity, are older than they should be for the grades in which they are enrolled.

“I would rather they get adult education so they can get a GED and learn a trade,” said Ayler, Fortier’s assistant principal.

Perhaps there is some hope for Fortier. The New Orleans Public School System recently received a $75,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to help improve its three “lowest performing” schools.

But no one can be absolutely certain of what solution will fix what is so obviously broken within the New Orleans Public School System. A search is now on for a new superintendent. The idea of a mayoral takeover, which happened in Chicago and Cleveland, has been entertained, but some doubt the effects that even such an extreme measure would have on the many students who fall through the cracks at non-magnet schools.

Most observers would agree with Franklin principal Tews’ assessment: “It’s going to take more money. Period.”

Jarrod Jones, Tammicka Logan, Bernard McGhee, Chari Patterson, Janelle Perrilliat, Andria Washington and James Williams contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999