Blackboard Wars

An Open Letter to Mitch Landrieu, Oprah Winfrey, Eddie Barbini, Jeff Kuntz, Steve Barr, and the John McDonogh Community from the John McDonogh Advisory Committee

The shooting of a John McDonogh student at the corner of N. Broad St. and Esplanade Avenue on Thursday, February 21, has become another opportunity for negative publicity for John McDonogh High School. The John McDonogh Advisory Committee (JMAC), formed to provide community oversight and engagement, would like to defend John McDonogh students from unfair generalizations and harmful stereotypes.

Blackboard Wars, a “reality TV” series about the first semester of the 2012-2013 school year at John McDonogh, documents the takeover of the school by charter operator Steve Barr and his organization Future is Now. The TV show has been a source of negative, exploitative depictions of the students and the school.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in his 2012 State of the City Address, “It is a sad, horrifying truth that in 2011 a John McDonogh High School student was more likely to be killed on the streets of America in the City of New Orleans than a soldier fighting for our freedom in Afghanistan.” While it is true that five John McDonogh students were victims of homicide in the school year 2010-2011, the statistic represents an anomaly. Over 2045 members of the US military have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Associated Press.

We thank Mitch Landrieu for visiting John McDonogh High School on Monday, February 25 to speak with the students about the statement he made. We respectfully hope that the mayor, Steve Barr, and those responsible for publicity for Blackboard Wars will stop repeating this anomalous statistic that stigmatizes the current students of John McDonogh.

Another false statement repeated by Steve Barr is that 70% of John McDonogh students dropped out prior to take-over. According to the data collected by the Louisiana Department of Education (available on their website), the drop-out rate for John McDonogh in the year 2009-2010 was 3.7% while the Recovery School Districts overall drop-out rate was 9.6%. It is also worth noting that the attendance rate for 2009-2010 was 74.3% while Steve Barr has routinely claimed extremely low attendance rates in previous years. JMAC urges all concerned to review the only existing data (no drop-out or attendance data exist for the 2010-2011 and the 2011-2012 school years) and to stop making exaggerated claims about how poor the school was in the past to inflate themselves and their cause. 

Moreover, we have heard the accusations of John McDonogh being the “most dangerous,” “most under-performing,” and “worst” school made repeatedly by the charter operator, the voice-over for Blackboard Wars, and by the media. These blanket statements stereotype our school and our children. They reinforce low expectations for John McDonogh students. Students who are told repeatedly that they are violent, troubled and beyond redemption will soon come to believe it. 

Furthermore, this rhetoric drives away families and students who believe the exaggerations and lies about John McDonogh.

A cursory check of the web for most violent high schools will reveal that neither John McDonogh nor any other New Orleans high school makes these lists, which are compiled by researchers using indicators like the number of students who become victims of violent crime and the amount of violent incidents directed towards teachers.

It is particularly egregious that these unsubstantiated characterizations come from a project associated with Ms. Winfrey, who has long championed African American children and knows better than anyone how negative stereotypes disenfranchise and demoralize our young people. JMAC calls on Ms. Winfrey to repudiate such statements and stop the sensational publicity surrounding “Blackboard War.” We hope that she will follow Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s example and visit our school, spend time with our young people and find out for herself who they really are.

We, the officers and members of JMAC, strongly encourage all concerned parents, alumni and community members to join us in providing oversight and serving in an advisory capacity to Future is Now New Orleans to ensure the best possible learning environment for the students of John McDonogh High School. 

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