New Orleans Public Schools turns 180 Years Old

Jonae Bond Data news Weekly Contributor

New Orleans founded one of the first public school systems in the South. On March 26, 2021, the school system marked its 180th Anniversary of the New Orleans Public Schools System. The journey of the NOLA Public School System has been marked by both major victories and the challenge to overcome socioeconomic and racial inequity.

“Improving society by expanding the education system has not come without struggle,” said Justin McCorkle, the NOLA Public Schools Director of Community Relations. “But without these struggles we would not be where we are today.”

Officially created in 1841, the Louisiana Legislature approved a part of state education funds to support public education in New Orleans. Although the system received approval, there were still many obstacles for it to overcome.

African Americans freed from slavery also sought to achieve advancement through public education, explained Ethan Ashley, the Orleans Parish School Board President. In 1900, the school board proceeded to restrict African American students to enroll in public schools. These barriers to entry for public education were set for the first five grades, even though Black students were attending public high schools for almost an entire generation. Racial segregation policies and a great lack of funding caused African American students to have different and low-quality public education.

“Without the official abolition of slavery… I would not be standing here as the school board president,” Ashley said. “The system has fought so many reforms and the school board is only focused on getting better.”

For 80 years, many of the South’s population was excluded from education. In 1917, Julius Rosenwald, an American businessman and philanthropist, was inspired by a paper written by Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald took his fortune to help build 5,000 schools for the African American communities who were excluded from educational resources in the South. Some of these schools still stand today. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu explained at the anniversary event that almost the entire African American middle-class of the South can trace their roots back to one of those 5,000 schools.
“This root is deep in this community and we are trying to build schools that work for all races,” Landrieu said. “We want to shine on in an amazing way to show how races can come together as one.”

The achievement of NOLA Public Schools should also be considered when thinking about disparities in education around the world, Landrieu said.

“When we think of 180 years it is kind of hard to wrap it around our heads,” Landrieu said. “There are still nations today that do not believe in true access of education and equality.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, the NOLA Public School System experienced its biggest change since desegregation of public schools. The city became the home to the first All-Charter School System in the United States. While New Orleans charter schools have had some improvements in academic performance each year along with an increase in graduation rates, the work to improve the quality of education in the system still continues. Orleans Parish Schools still carries a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers compared to surrounding parishes and the ratio of teachers of color to students of color in the system remains lower than other districts, according to recent data from The Education Trust.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has also been a test for educators, families, and the school system in moving education to remote, online formats and returning students and teachers back safely this year.

“Thank you to the men and women who have dedicated their lives to educating the children of NOLA,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell in her remarks. “Children are the best source of our future.”
Despite the challenges to learning in the pandemic, Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr., the superintendent for NOLA Public Schools’, said that there is much students have still achieved.

“You all can and will overcome,” Lewis Jr. said. “At NOLA PS we have countless success stories of students that have been through and overcome the challenges you all face today.”

The school system allocated $5 million in 2020 to support students in continuing their education during the pandemic, Ashley said. Although the School Board and the NOLA Public Schools System has endured many challenges, its leaders said they will continue to push forward to make it more equitable for all students.
“Even though you may go through a lot…know we are going to hold you all close every day. We are going to let you know that you will get through it,” Lewis Jr. said. “In the midst of darkness light will persist. Shine on NOLA Public Schools, shine on,” he said.

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