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Fixing non-magnet schools should be first priority

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New Orleans

Here as elsewhere, magnet schools are a hot button issue among parents, students, teachers and school administrators. Biggest issue: admissions policies.

That’s wrong. The bigger issue is the question of what we should do about the non-magnet schools.

When the New Orleans Times Picayune ran a magnet school debate editorial, it talked about making admissions policies more inclusive but nowhere asked the larger question of why so many people seem to see magnet schools as the last hope of the damned.

During several weeks last fall, as one of eight students from a news reporting class at Xavier University here, I spent time in New Orleans public high schools where I witnessed the stark differences between the district’s prestigious magnet schools and the pathetic non-magnet schools.

Fortier High School, a non-magnet school, doesn’t even have enough textbooks to provide its students with their own copies. In hot and humid New Orleans, classrooms aren’t air-conditioned. The restrooms and cafeteria suffer from a serious lack of attention to basic cleanliness.

Meanwhile, Ben Franklin High School, a magnet school acclaimed for its architecture, has computers galore, a state-of-the-art television studio, and 100 percent of its graduates go to college.

These types of inequities go far beyond a simple matter of one school being a little better than another. This is an out and out injustice being committed against students who aren’t fortunate enough to get into “the right schools.” Under such a system, it’s inevitable that those who “have” will get while the “have nots” will slip through the cracks. Their high schools leave them so unprepared to go out into the world that they won’t even begin to be able to compete.

Little wonder recent studies indicate that fewer and fewer African-American teenagers are going on to college. That trend will continue, because public school systems continue to provide horribly inadequate education in those schools that serve so many minority students.

Sad as it sounds, many people have just plain given up on regular public schools, and they shouldn’t. Just as with anything else, a school is only going to be as good as the time, energy and money people put into it.

Everyone says non-magnet schools don’t provide a quality education, but if they don’t even have enough money to get books for all their students, what can we expect?

Clearly, the real problem isn’t the schools themselves, but school boards that are content to save a few passengers while the rest of the ship goes down.

Bernard McGhee is editor-in-chief of the Xavier Herald.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999