Rock the Schools host Chris Stewart talks with Peter Cook, an education advocate who originally moved to New Orleans to teach at John McDonogh High School, and now 13 years later calls New Orleans home.
Cook shares the story of New Orleans through the lens of a teacher, having worked for the Recovery School District and later leading education engagement at Mass Insight, helping displaced families in Houston return to New Orleans public schools.
In a previous podcast Chris Stewart spoke with New Orleans parent advocate Ashana Bigard on the education reform movement’s failure to fully involve parents and local leaders in the reform process and decision-making. For parents like Bigard, it’s hard to see the successes of a movement in which you’ve never felt included.
Stewart presses Cook on this:
Do we, as people who want real changes in public education, keep shooting ourselves in the foot by continuing to say things are getting better? It’s not getting us the response that we want from local people.
Cook readily agrees. “The one thing we’re trying to say isn’t that hey, mission accomplished, we’re good.” He added that the New Orleans school system hasn’t yet reached a point to where “you would feel totally comfortable sending your kids.” Yet, he says:
We’ve made a lot of progress, and there’s nowhere in the country that has made as big an impact in the shortest time with as many kids over a sustained period.
So, where did the signals cross? Why can’t local parents and reformers seem to see that progress in the same way?
We’ve done a really bad job at messaging in general. Our focus was, in a certain sense, the right focus. We were focused on buckling down and reopening schools, getting charters off the ground, doing all those things that you had to do when you basically have to build a school system from scratch.
It may have very well been the “right focus” but the consequences are felt throughout New Orleans. By not focusing on communicating with people locally, Cook acknowledges that “to a certain extent, this conversation has been allowed to be co-opted by folks outside of New Orleans” rather than “educators and people leading schools talking about it.”
Make no mistake, there have been some accomplishments and Cook outlines what he, and other reformers, see as the most unequivocal areas of progress:
- African-American students in New Orleans are outperforming their peers across the state.
- More special needs students are graduating high school at 11 percentage points higher than the rest of the state.
- Almost 60 percent of students enroll in two-year or four-year colleges after graduation.
- High school graduation rates are up 20 percentage points from pre-Katrina.
In closing the conversation, Cook pointed out what we don’t talk about nearly enough—that there was a disaster brewing in education way before Katrina.
“It shouldn’t have taken a natural disaster for this to happen. We had a disaster—a slow motion disaster in that we were cheating kids of the education they deserve. It’s a legacy that we deal with.”