On Tuesday, The Root, the online magazine of African-American culture originally founded by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published an article from Jordan Flaherty entitled, “New Orleans Teachers and Students Wrestle With Racial Tension.” Flaherty’s piece paints a highly distorted and deceptive picture of post-Katrina New Orleans public schools, in what was clearly an effort to malign education reform efforts in the city.
My admittedly tart but otherwise tame response to the article in the comments section was apparently deleted by either The Root or Flaherty soon after I posted it. Like the activists Flaherty writes about in his piece, I guess either Flaherty or The Root wants readers to see only one side of the story – their side – and refuses to acknowledge any information that doesn’t dovetail with their view of the world.
I had a feeling that this very thing would happen and therefore I saved a copy of my comments, which I’ve reproduced below.
I love it when folks like Flaherty write slanted, faux journalism like this about the “great injustices” of New Orleans’ schools and attack people who work hard everyday to educate the children of this city.
Not once in his 1,300-word article does Flaherty talk about academic performance, which is arguably of paramount importance in any assessment of schools. I surmise the reason for this is that New Orleans’ schools have vastly improved since 2005 and our children (in particular, the low-income African American children who comprise the majority of New Orleans public school students) are receiving a better education than they ever did before the storm. In fact, Tulane University just released a report [see full text below] last month that emphasized this point: since 2005, the number of NOLA public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch has risen 9% to 84% of students overall, yet in that same period, academic performance has risen 41%.
After 10 years of academic improvement, it’s become hard to argue the system isn’t working, and that’s why Flaherty’s story focuses on tangential issues like Teach For America, assailing its teachers for being white outsiders (which, ironically, could describe Flaherty himself), as well as making false claims that the city is witnessing a widespread student protest movement…it isn’t.
What New Orleans has witnessed in recent months is an attempt by a group of…well, mostly white outsiders (again, love the irony), who have little experience in our public schools or with their students, to stir up trouble in some of our schools. These are folks who see the world through ideological blinders, as if everything is black-and-white, and see conspiracies where none exist. These activists are on a self-appointed crusade against “oppressors” in charter schools like Collegiate Academies, people who in fact share many of the activists’ same values, except that they actually LIVE them, as opposed to just paying lip service to them.
Flaherty is apparently one of these crusaders, given all the facts he leaves out of his article. For example, Flaherty never mentions that Katrena Ndang, his example of a veteran teacher pushed out by an influx of TFA teachers, is actually a long-time activist and former organizer for the United Teachers of New Orleans, as well as an Advisory Board member of The New Teachers Roundtable (TNTR), which he features toward the end of the article. She is hardly a neutral third party.
Speaking of The New Teachers Roundtable, it is hard to think of an organization that has less presence or influence in the New Orleans education community. Even if co-founder Hannah Sadtler’s statement that her organization has reached 400 teachers is accurate (which is doubtful), the fact that’s their total after bring around for four years speaks to how peripheral the organization is in this city. In reality, TNTR was founded by two disaffected former TFA corps members who chose to externalize the blame for their failures as teachers on “the system” instead of where it belongs: on themselves.
Finally, in regard to the “protests” at Collegiate, again the story follows the same lines. A group of outsiders tried to foment trouble at Collegiate Academies not because of any demand from angry parents, but because of what the organization represents — the success of the post-Katrina transformation of our public school system. You can see the full story behind the protests here and find out who actually wrote the student letter Flaherty quotes here (hint: it wasn’t students).
Post-Script: Want to know what students really feel about Collegiate Academies? See what they say themselves below:
A Sibling Dispute In Court Could Spell Trouble for Smothers Academy Charter School's CEO Is Accused Of Financial Impropriety In Lawsuit Filed By Brother
The CEO of a local charter management organization, which was investigated by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) after a report on this blog raised questions about its management and financial practices, is being accused of financial impropriety in a lawsuit filed by his own brother.
On March 28th, I published a post – “Red Flags Everywhere” – which highlighted troubling issues at Smothers Academy, a Type 2 charter school in Jefferson Parish. It noted that the school appeared to be in violation of state ethics laws prohibiting nepotism, seeing that Smothers Academy’s CEO Damon Smothers had hired his brother, Kemic Smothers, as the organization’s legal counsel and director of procurement. The piece also drew attention to several concerns surfaced in Smothers Academy’s F.Y. 2017 audited financial statements, including the assertion that Damon Smothers had spent over $9300 on the school’s credit card for personal expenses.
Read my original piece on Smothers Academy:
A review of documents from a Jefferson Parish charter operator that applied to run a historic high school in New Orleans has revealed that the organization could be violating state ethics laws and has been flagged for serious deficiencies in its management and accounting practices.
A week later, LDOE officials sent a letter to Eddie Williams, president of the board of directors of Smothers Academy, requesting documentation related to the problems identified in their audit. On April 17th, LDOE sent a second letter to Williams, which formally notified the board that Smothers Academy was in violation of the state’s nepotism laws and instructed them to terminate the employment of either Damon or Kemic Smothers by June 30th. As a result, Kemic was fired that same day.
Yet it appears that he is refusing to go without a fight.
Court documents reveal that Kemic is now suing his brother Damon (along with Smothers Academy, Inc., two members of the board of directors, and the school’s CFO Mark DeBose) for breach of contract, violation of the whistleblower statute, retaliatory discharge, and fraud.
In a petition filed with the Orleans Parish Civil District Court in July, Kemic claims that he was summoned to an April 5th meeting with his brother and CFO Mark DuBose in which they revealed that Damon had “gifted himself” $20,000 drawn from the school’s bank account without the knowledge or consent of the board of directors. They then asked Kemic to devise a way for Damon to keep the money without having to inform the board or repay it. However, Kemic refused, noting that the unauthorized allocation of funds was almost certainly illegal.
Kemic goes on to assert that he was subsequently terminated on April 17th – as opposed to June 30th when his contract officially ended – for refusing to help Damon hide the $20,000 he had taken from the school’s bank account. According to the lawsuit, “Damon Smothers insinuated that Kemic Smothers was not a team player and that he should have found a way for Damon Smothers to avoid repaying the $20,000.00.”
It should be noted that accusations made in Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit are simply that: accusations. The court has not ruled on the merits of the case. Nevertheless, in light of the board’s lax financial oversight and Damon’s questionable use of the school’s credit card, these latest allegations should be investigated to ensure that Smothers Academy administrators are not enriching themselves at the expense of their students.
Read Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit against his brother:
Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education
On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.
Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.
For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.
Dear Board Members,
In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.
On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.
Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.
These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.
In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.
Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.
Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.
If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:
- Einstein Charter Schools Deemed Noncompliant For Providing Inadequate Transportation (9/21/17)
- Einstein board prepares to fight Orleans school district over its failure to bus students (9/25/17)
- Einstein Charter Schools Push Back Against Transportation Policy (10/25/17)
- Busing dispute at Einstein schools is headed to court (11/30/17)
- School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp (1/3/18)
- Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing (1/9/18)
Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.
Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA
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