Mercedes Schneider is an English teacher at Slidell High School in St. Tammany Parish on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In recent years, she has emerged as a prolific and vitriolic anti-education reform blogger. Her favorite targets for abuse are the Recovery School District and Common Core. As a result, Mercedes has become a favorite of Diane Ravitch, who often brings attention to Mercedes’ work on her blog.
Click on the link below to read a post I wrote in response to one of Mercedes’ pieces in Huffington Post on Louisiana’s School Performance Scores that was riddled with errors.
The one thing that is clear to anyone who’s attempted to read Mercedes Schneider’s blog is that she’s angry: angry at John Merrow, angry about Common Core, angry about evolution, and angry at Teach For America, along with a whole host of other things. However, she reserves her greatest fury for t…
Silence, Obfuscation & Lies A Backroom Deal Raises Serious Questions About OPSB's Commitment to Equity & Transparency
When it was announced last November that Hynes Charter School would be partnering with the University of New Orleans (UNO) to open a new K-8 campus in fall of 2019, district officials portrayed the move as part of their broader mission to expand access to the city’s highest-performing schools.
“We are very thankful to see this partnership come to fruition as a way to expand our high-performing schools to other families in the city,” Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) Supt. Henderson Lewis said in a statement on the expansion. “Not only will this partnership help us achieve our goal of increasing the number of students attending ‘A’ and ‘B’ schools, but it will also give our students an incentive to strive in higher education.”
But what Lewis never mentioned is that the children of UNO employees will be granted an enrollment preference at the new school, meaning that the University of New Orleans will be given open seats at one of the city’s most sought-after public schools to use as a perk for current and prospective faculty members.
In fact, officials from both OPSB and Hynes have conspicuously avoided any discussion of the admissions preference plan, most likely because they know that many community members (myself included) would view this arrangement as a betrayal of the district’s professed commitment to provide equitable access to schools. Instead, they’ve apparently decided to pursue a strategy of silence and obfuscation in the hopes that the deal between Hynes and UNO would fly under-the-radar.
And for a while, at least, the approach seemed to work. Local news stories on the Hynes expansion announcement were uniformly positive, echoing the message that the new campus would open up more seats for families seeking a spot at the A-rated school. Meanwhile, none of the coverage addressed the fact that the children of UNO employees would be given an edge in the admissions process, as reporters were kept in-the-dark about the plan.
The full story only recently came to light thanks to reporting from WWL’s Caresse Jackman, who learned about the admissions preference after UNO administrators sent out an email in late-January to faculty and staff which said that children of university employees who live in Orleans Parish would be given priority in enrolling at the new school.
In a statement to WWL, Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas acknowledged the school was discussing a possible enrollment preference with UNO, but insisted those conversations were still in their early stages:
“Hynes is exploring the possibility of a community partnership with the University of New Orleans in the opening of our new school, which includes locating our facility on UNO’s Campus. We are in the preliminary stages of planning and will follow the letter of law allowed in all aspects of the partnership. We will provide information to the public as soon as we are able.”
Truth vs. Lies
However, internal UNO documents, which I obtained through a public records request, show that Douglas’ statement to WWL was a lie. (It should also be noted that she is currently slow-walking a public records request that I submitted to Hynes.)
While Douglas maintained that plans with UNO were still in the “preliminary stages,” these documents show that Hynes had already finalized a partnership agreement with the University of New Orleans.
On January 25th – the day after Jackman’s story aired on WWL – UNO president John Wicklow sent a letter to the head of the Board of Supervisors of the University of Louisiana System (of which UNO is a part) requesting approval of an memorandum of understanding with Hynes. In the attached M.O.U., Hynes agreed to give “a fifteen (15%) percent enrollment preference for dependent children of permanent employees of UNO.” In exchange, the university would grant Hynes a long-term lease (at a cost of $1 per year) for a parcel of land on their Lakefront Campus where the new school will ultimately reside.
Other public records make clear that an admissions priority for UNO employees was part of the plan from the very beginning. In September 2017, more than a year before the Hynes expansion was officially announced, a “Feasibility and Concept Analysis” of the UNO-Hynes partnership was developed for the university by Dr. Rose Drill-Peterson. In her report, Drill-Peterson suggested that UNO and Hynes seek an enrollment preference for children of UNO employees, as well as a preference for families residing within the 70122 zip code.
Later, under a section entitled “Political Threats and Challenges,” Drill-Peterson warned that there “could be some backlash” from education leaders and activists against an enrollment preference, but ultimately points out “it could serve as a major benefit for UNO employees.”
Finally, in her conclusion, Drill-Peterson listed a series of next steps for UNO and Hynes officials to pursue, including the recommendation that “discussions with EnrollNOLA [which oversees OneApp] and the Orleans Parish School Board should occur to determine if the focus can be on a community school with 70122 zip-code-preference as well as a preference for the dependents of UNO faculty and staff.”
The Complicity of OPSB
According to a source at OPSB, Hynes and UNO officials were able to get district officials to agree to an enrollment preference in which 15% of the available seats at the new Hynes campus will be set aside each year for the children of full-time UNO employees. This means that about 12 of the 75 open seats available for the first kindergarten class this fall will already be off-the-table.
Nevertheless, you wouldn’t know this from looking at the information available about the new school’s admissions process on the EnrollNOLA website. Perhaps that’s because they’re waiting for the U of L board to officially approve the Hynes-UNO agreement, which is scheduled for a vote next Friday, February 22nd (which also happens to be the last day to submit an application through OneApp).
But here’s the kicker: My source tells me that Supt. Lewis, who believes he has the authority to unilaterally approve the admissions preference deal, won’t be presenting it for approval by the school board – i.e., there won’t be an opportunity for public debate and public input on the plan.
OPSB already allows Hynes to game the system
Furthermore, OPSB has already allowed Hynes tip the scales in its favor in other ways.
While district officials describe Hynes as one of the highest performing open-enrollment schools in the city, the reality is a bit more complicated. To start, the school has a free pre-K program, but it’s only open to gifted and talented students, which means the three and four year-olds seeking a spot must earn a high score on an “an individually administered test of intellectual abilities.” This also means it pretty much eliminates Hynes’ pre-k program as an option for low-income families. One added benefit of gaining entry to Hynes’ elite pre-K program is that those students are guaranteed a spot in kindergarten and you can be certain that nearly all of the families with kids in the pre-K program take Hynes up on the offer.
For those families who can’t get their children into Hynes’ pre-K program, snagging an open kindergarten seat is pretty much the only chance they have to get into the school, as very few seats open up in subsequent grades. Still, a confluence of factors end up keeping most low-income families out.
Certain students also get priority in enrollment, such as siblings of students currently attending Hynes. OneApp then sets aside 25% of available seats for applicants who reside within a half-mile of the school and up to 42% of available seats for students who reside in the 70124 zip code.
However, this zip code preference is unique to Hynes. OneApp generally sets aside 25% of the available seats for students within a half mile of the school and another 25% for students who live within the school’s geographic zone. So when OneApp assigns students to Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers, for example, 25% of the available seats will go to applicants within a half mile of the school and another 25% will go to children who live in Zone VII (in purple in the map below). The rest of the seats will go to children from across the city.
Yet when Hynes finally joined OneApp in 2017, OPSB allowed them (again, without any public debate on the matter) to opt-out of geographic zone system (they are in Zone V in blue above) and instead agreed to set aside seats for students within their zip code. And because Hynes in located in Lakeview, one of the wealthier areas of city, the students who end up in those spots tend to be whiter and more affluent than the city as a whole.
As a result, Hynes students look drastically different than those of just about every other open-enrollment school in the city. According data compiled by the Louisiana Department of Education, only 32% of Hynes’ current students are low-income, as opposed to 84% of public school students in the city as a whole. Moreover, while the 82% of the students in New Orleans public schools are African-American, only 35% of the students enrolled at Hynes are black.1
OPSB has an equity and transparency problem
Back in 2016, I wrote an article for The 74 in which I looked at why some members of the education community were wary about the return to local control. One of the main reasons was that OPSB had been slow to embrace the policies that the Recovery School District had established to promote equity, such as OneApp, the city’s unified enrollment system.
As former New Schools for New Orleans co-CEO Michael Stone explained in an interview for the piece:
“The RSD has not only demonstrated a commitment to providing equitable access to schools, but has continually looked for the next intervention that will meet the needs of the most vulnerable kids in our city… OPSB has either been apathetic about those issues or was brought into those conversations kicking and screaming.”
Given what we now know about backroom admissions deal between Hynes and UNO, those concerns about OPSB’s commitment to equity appear to be justified. The district is trying to surreptitiously ram through an admissions preference at a public school, funded by taxpayers and nominally open-enrollment, without any public scrutiny or debate.
If this is the way OPSB is going to operate, it doesn’t bode well for the future of public education in New Orleans.
- To look at it another way: Hynes alone enrolls almost 11% of the district’s white students, even thought there are approximately 80 public schools across the city. ↩
Garbage In, Garbage Out… Zoe Sullivan's Piece on NOLA Public Schools Represents Journalism At Its Worst
Back in 2014, in a piece I wrote in response to an error-laden NPR story on the transformation of public education in New Orleans, I explained why so many education advocates in the city had developed a sense of “journalism fatigue”:
“Often, journalists fly in and build their stories around the loudest, most extreme voices in the debate, folks who apply their preconceived notions and ideologies to the New Orleans context. There have also been plenty of examples of less scrupulous “journalists” who distort New Orleans’ story to further their political agendas. What’s more, the perspectives of those most impacted by the city’s reforms – i.e., public school students and parents – are seldom solicited, nonetheless heard in the reporting. As a result, national coverage of the city’s schools rarely manages to step back from the debate and objectively assess what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what still needs to be done.”
In the intervening five years, I’ve called out scores of reporters for writing sloppy, one-sided articles about the city’s school system, all of which follow a predictable formula, generally quote the same handful of people (while curiously never asking basic questions about their ties or motivations), and invariably get the story wrong.
Nevertheless, the garbage stories about public education in New Orleans just keep on coming. Case-in-point: “The Battle for New Orleans Public Schools,” an article from freelance journalist Zoe Sullivan that recently appeared in Next City.
To put it bluntly, Sullivan’s story is advocacy masquerading as journalism. She gets her facts wrong, makes several misleading claims, and selectively omits relevant information throughout the article. Moreover, the topic involved and the cast of characters featured in the piece suggest that Sullivan was fed a story which she was more than happy to promote.
And once again, it’s the same ideologically-driven, nuance-free story that many so-called journalists have written before, in which the pre-Hurricane Katrina school system’s problems are minimized, the progress that schools have made since the storm is called into doubt, and readers are left with the false impression that the community wants to do away with the city’s charter schools.
Below I outline some of the biggest problems with Sullivan’s article…
She cherrypicks data and doesn’t check her facts.
Sullivan begins her article by claiming that “black teachers now make up less than half of the city’s teaching corps,” citing a 2016 article in Slate, which in turn, cites a report based on data from 2014. So, the numbers she’s using are five years old.
However, had Sullivan taken the time to conduct a little internet research, she would have learned that a majority of the district’s teachers are indeed black. According to teacher data compiled by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, just over half of the city’s educators were African-American and nearly 60% were people of color in the 2017-18 school year.
Sullivan also has trouble getting her facts right when she turns to the recent debate over the fate of McDonogh #35, a storied New Orleans high school that was once one of the highest-performing schools in the city, but has been struggling academically over the past several years.
In describing the school’s plight, Sullivan blames McDonogh #35’s academic decline on the state’s takeover of most of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina:
“The school was founded in 1917 as the first public high school in the state for black children…The school had an outstanding record until the early aughts but went into decline after Katrina — when its selective admissions system was eliminated under state management. By 2017, the state ranked it as a “D” school.”
There’s just one big problem: McDonogh #35 was never taken over by the state.
McDonogh #35’s high academic performance meant that it was one of the few schools that escaped state takeover by the Recovery School District in 2005. It has remained under the direct control of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) ever since. Furthermore, the board voluntarily decided to jettison McDonogh #35’s selective-admissions system when the school reopened after the storm because families who were returning to the city needed to get their children back in school as quickly as possible. So, contrary to Sullivan’s claim, state officials had absolutely nothing to do with McDonogh #35’s academic slump.
Instead, that responsibility falls squarely on OPSB, which last month voted to hand over the management of McDonogh #35 to InspireNOLA Charter Schools, a local, black-led charter network with a proven track-record of turning around failing schools. Sullivan insists, “alumni see closing McDonogh 35 as inflicting a wound.” However, as noted above, the school isn’t technically closing; it’s simply being transferred to new management. Moreover, the insinuation that alums were united in their opposition is hard to square with the fact the McDonogh #35 Alumni Association recently announced it was partnering with InspireNOLA to launch a new student recruitment campaign aimed at boosting enrollment at the school next fall.
Sullivan’s disregard for truth continues when she attempts to downplay the progress that the city’s public schools have made over the past 14 years. Although she mentions that an in-depth study by Doug Harris at Education Research Alliance at Tulane “found that academic achievement in New Orleans improved substantially after the takeover,” Sullivan makes sure to note that performance dipped (not plummeted) over the past couple years. She then goes on to mention that the state’s school accountability formula changed in 2018, which she says makes “it difficult to compare with previous years.”
However, that’s only half right. It’s true that Louisiana changed their school accountability formula in 2018 – along with every other state in the country – to align with the new requirements of the Every Students Succeeds Act. (It’s also worth noting that changes adopted in the Bayou State actually make it harder for schools to receive a good grade.) But last year, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) also intentionally issued two sets of school grades in 2018 – one set calculated with the new formula and the other with the old formula – to allow the public to directly compare school performance across years.
So, it wasn’t difficult at all to compare year-over-year performance of New Orleans schools in 2018, which Sullivan would have realized had she bothered to simply look at the raft of accountability data LDOE provides on its website.
This is journalism nerdiness, but I got to put on for my state. We only ever hear about how bad Louisiana is, but its dept of ed has the most transparent data website I’ve ever seen. Seems like there is no measure they don’t post. Would love to see other states do this.
— Casey Parks (@caseyparks) January 29, 2019
Sullivan later takes a swing at charter schools more broadly, citing a study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University to suggest that charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools:
“A 2015 study issued by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes examined 41 school districts and found that charter students in 26 cities outperformed their traditional school peers in math. But in 11 urban areas, charter students did worse in math. There were similar findings for reading scores.”
For one thing, it’s unclear why Sullivan would cite this as evidence that charters perform no better than traditional public schools, since the research showed that they outperformed in a majority of cities. Nevertheless, the bigger issue is that she omits the fact that this very same study showed that New Orleans charter students outperform their peers in traditional public schools in both math and reading.
She doesn’t acknowledge who her sources really are.
Another major problem with Sullivan’s piece is that while she interviews several individuals in her story, she doesn’t fully disclose who they are in terms of their backgrounds, affiliations, etc.
Take Ashana Bigard, for example, who is prominently featured throughout the article. Sullivan leaves readers with the impression that she is just your average New Orleans public school parent who is fed up with the school system.
In reality, she’s an activist and organizer whose work is funded by the teachers unions. She’s one of fifteen Progressive Education Fellows (a list that includes several prominent anti-education reform voices) who are paid to write and promote anti-charter diatribes which are published by the magazine, The Progressive. Annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor show that the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) bankrolled the project. She’s also a consultant for Friends & Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an organization that gets funding from from two organizations – the Schott Foundation and the Advancement Project – which together have received nearly $2 million from AFT and NEA over the past five years. Sullivan never reveals any of this.
This same transparency problem comes up when Sullivan throws in a quote from Andre Perry, who she says, “studied education in New Orleans for years after Katrina.” First, it should be clarified that “studied education” is a bit of a stretch, since what Perry essentially does is draw on other people’s research and repackage it for public consumption. Sullivan also leaves out a key part of Perry’s biography: He was once was the CEO of a New Orleans charter school network. (In an interview with The Gambit in 2009, he explained how he got the job: “Eventually someone called my bluff and said, ‘Hey, you talk a big game. How about trying to run some schools?'”)
His short tenure at the helm of Capital One/New Beginnings Charter Schools was a complete disaster. His schools suffered from poor performance, high suspension rates, and before he knew it he was shown the door. Given that fact, most journalists would probably turn to someone else for an unbiased view on charters or, at the very least, give readers a clearer picture of his background.
But perhaps the most laughable part of the article comes from an interview with Armtrice Cowart, a local public school parent who has shown up at several recent OPSB meetings to harangue the board. Sullivan quotes her as she indulges in some historical revisionism about the pre-Katrina school system:
“It wasn’t as horrible as [charter school proponents] try to make it seem. We had great teachers. We had great things happening in our schools. What we didn’t have, honestly, was the resources and the money that these charter schools and charter boards were getting after Katrina.”
Let’s get something straight: The pre-Katrina school system was actually horrible. It was the second lowest-performing district in a state which perennially has been at or near the bottom of national education rankings. Nearly half of public school students didn’t graduate from high school. Most school buildings were in a sorry state of disrepair. Corruption pervaded nearly every level of the school system. In short, anyone who experienced the educational disaster that was New Orleans Public Schools prior to the storm would have to be delusional to assert otherwise.
Sullivan also never mentions that part of the reason why schools didn’t have the resources and money they needed back then is that Cowart and others were literally robbing the district blind. In 2004, Cowart was one of eight school system employees indicted by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office under the Hobbs Act for her participation in a scheme that defrauded the district of $70,000. She eventually pled guilty to the charges.
In light of this fact, Cowart’s nostalgia for the old days begins to make sense: It was a complete free-for-all in which the adults running the district could enrich themselves at the expense of kids… at least until the FBI showed up. What doesn’t make sense is that Sullivan would consider her a reliable source for this story.
While there are other problems in Sullivan’s recent article on New Orleans schools, I’ll give it a rest because I think I’ve made my point. No self-respecting reporter – or editor, for that matter – would consider this a fair and balanced take on the state of the city’s public schools.
The difference between journalism and advocacy is that the former starts with the facts to develop a narrative, while the latter starts with a narrative and tries to find facts to support it. The numerous problems in Sullivan’s piece make clear that she was pushing an agenda, not seeking the truth.
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