So, let’s get one thing clear right from the start: The decision to allow OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s cable network, to film a reality TV show at John McDonogh Senior High School was stupid, plain and simple.
The uproar and resentment caused by “Blackboard Wars” has sullied the reputation of John Mac’s operator, the Future Is Now Schools, and calls into question the priorities of the school’s leadership. The challenge of turning around a high school as troubled as John Mac is huge and demands the undivided attention, time, and energy of teachers and administrators in order to be successful. Given the enormity of the task before them, it’s hard to explain why school leaders would even consider getting involved in “Blackboard Wars,” especially during their critical first year at John Mac. At the very least, the presence of a film crew and the hoopla surrounding the launch of the television series has been an unnecessary distraction from the school’s primary objective: providing a high-quality education to students.
Furthermore, one didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee that “Blackboard Wars” would only serve to antagonize those alumni and community members who had long opposed the takeover of John McDonogh by an outside charter management organization. In light of the controversy surrounding the chartering decision, one would expect that FINS would take pains to ingratiate itself with the community and focus on putting to rest concerns that the organization had anything but the best intentions. Instead, once the tawdry previews of “Blackboard Wars” began to emerge, the already rocky relationship between John Mac’s leadership and its stakeholders collapsed.
School leaders should have expected that the publicity for “Blackboard Wars” would hype the least flattering and most stereotypical aspects of John McDonogh and its students in an attempt to boost the show’s viewership. [Postscript, 3/25/13: Compare Blackboard Wars’ promo with the preview for the PBS documentary, “180 Days: A Year Inside An American High School.”] After all, we live in the anti-golden age of “Jersey Shore” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” in which sensationalism rules because it drives ratings. Why would OWN’s producers hold themselves to a higher standard? Likewise, it’s no surprise that much of the anger from community members has centered on the show’s “negative, exploitative depiction” of the school and its students, in particular the claim that John McDonogh is “one of the most dangerous and underperforming schools in the country.”
In truth, the claim probably isn’t that far off the mark, and contrary to the claims of some community members, violence and dismal academic performance plagued the school well before its takeover by the RSD. At the same time, I can attest from experience that the majority of students at John Mac are decent, well-behaved young adults who deserve our respect just for persevering in spite of the many challenges they face in their everyday lives. [Full disclosure: I taught at John McDonogh prior to Hurricane Katrina and was on staff at the time of the shooting in 2003.] Unfortunately, reality TV has little interest in telling the stories of this silent majority and instead focuses its cameras on the lowest common denominator: fights, drugs, chaos, teen pregnancy, etc. The community has a right to be angry about “Blackboard Wars,” not because it exposes the negative aspects of life at John McDonogh, but because it portrays an incomplete picture of the school and its students.
At a recent meeting with representatives from FINS – including FINS CEO Steve Barr – John McDonogh Advisory Committee chairman Clarence Robinson expressed the sentiments of many when he said, “I wish the show would go away. We spend way too much time on the show and not enough time on educating the kids.” This Saturday, Robinson will get his wish – at least temporarily – when OWN airs the final episode of the show’s pilot season. Although the network recently said it’s considering extending the series, FINS would do well to take a pass and end this televised sideshow. Barr has attempted to defend “Blackboard Wars” by claiming it’s “important to put a window on school turnaround.” However, his organization didn’t receive a charter from BESE in order to expose the problems of inner-city public schools; it was given a charter to fix them. It’s time for Steve Barr & Co. to acknowledge their mistakes, rebuild their relationship with the community, and refocus on their educational mission.