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Walter Umrani 

"Can anyone explain to me how a school with the state's highest achievers can exist in the very same district that has the state's lowest-scoring schools?"

My seventh-grade son, Joshua, enrolled at O. P. Walker in September of 2004, after transferring from a private school that just didn't impress me. One sunny afternoon, we were doing math homework that involved values of fractions. Even though I work with engineers, I made a point of referring to my son's math textbook to ensure that our methodology met with the teacher's requirements. But several days later, when charts and graphs were our next math adventure, I attempted to reference the textbook again -- only to discover that my son had no book in his possession.

I asked him, 'Joshua, where is your book?' He replied, 'I don't have a book.' 'You had a book Monday,' I replied. Then he looked at me with a very innocent expression and said, 'I took that book home by mistake. We only have enough books for the class.'

In 1994, when I was in my third year as PTO president at L.B. Landry High -- the school that I attended as a teenager -- we confronted exactly the same shortage of textbooks. Then as now, our children lacked the basic tools for learning -- books and equipment -- and a safe, clean environment where they can learn with dignity and security. In the months that followed the discovery that Joshua had no textbooks to bring home, I spoke to the principal at Walker. He expressed to me that his school was forced to take in low-performing students from all over the district -- that, in effect, the school was being used as a dumping ground. But no additional resources -- no additional security or social workers -- were given to the school to help it deal with these students. The result, as one security guard described it to me, was an accident waiting to happen. And sure enough, on the March afternoon when a student was shot outside Walker, that accident happened.

Middle-class parents whose kids go to private school would never tolerate these same kinds of shortages. Why is it acceptable for our kids to go to be 'educated' in a system that doesn't have enough books to allow kids to reference them in their homework? And why is it acceptable for our kids to be subjected to high-stakes tests on the same subject areas in which they haven't had the use of books?

Finally, why doesn't this mess get better?

Part of it is that the public school system is just that -- a system. Elected officials are there supposedly to protect the interests of the people, while administrators are there to ensure the proper implementation of learning programs in conjunction with state and federal guidelines. In the meantime, it would be hard to convince me that schools, some of which are already classified as being in academic crisis, actually expect their students to achieve without the minimal requirements of books, equipment and safe, clean buildings. The most disheartening fact is that these conditions continue to exist today on the watch of school principals, area superintendents and officials elected to protect the interests of the people.

As a supervisor for ChevronTexaco, every day I observe and promote excellence in operations, conformance to requirements, zero defects and the like. It's the leadership that makes it work. But we don't have the right kind of leadership to make our public system work. That's as true at the school site level as it is at the school district's head offices.

For example, if teachers and administrators at Walker had said they didn't have enough textbooks, that would have galvanized parents and the community to raise money and to bring the textbook shortage to the administration's attention quickly. As it was, I personally decided not to raise a fuss until after the first report card conference. I waited because I thought Walker was having some problems as a result of adding more grades, and that these would work themselves out in the first months of school. In fact, I learned at our first report card conference that none of Walker's students had enough textbooks to use them for homework. By that time, first-quarter testing had passed. As a result, the shortage had already had a direct impact on student achievement measures. Those same measures are used as the basis of deciding whether a school is in academic crisis or not. It's a vicious circle.

We are not powerless. By my estimate, the city of New Orleans has more than 425 African-American churches that together take in $12 million a month. Think about that: $12 million a month. Where is the power and influence that should come with that kind of economic activity? The same people who sit in church on Sunday and hope for their eternal reward need to be out there pushing for a better situation for these kids, but they don't. And then there are a lot of our people who have gotten spoiled by making federal programs like public housing, Social Security and Medicaid a way of life. They've been bought off in a way. They need to take responsibility for their children's education and discipline.

I know firsthand the power of education. When I was about 15, a group of young men picked me up in the Fischer project where I lived and took me to a meeting where I began to learn my actual history, that we were not descended from people who have always been slaves. I became a member of the Nation of Islam. Four hundred years of slavery can mess a people up, but dignity, self-respect and a clear grasp of history are powerful tools for offsetting that.

Regarding my son's situation, I spoke directly to the principal. The area superintendent seemed unaware of the book situation when I approached him at a school board meeting. I then spoke before the school board regarding this shameful condition. But this whole scenario was like dealing with a three-ring circus, clowns and all -- white clowns and black clowns.

Shortly after my crusade, I filed a lawsuit against the school system for revising and allocating funds for non-budgeted items without due process of Louisiana law. It was only then that books started arriving at the school -- a small victory that will have a positive effect on many. It was a victory scored by a few proud individuals who refused to accept crumbs from the slave master's table

What does all this have to do with Lusher? The proposed Lusher expansion would come at the cost of eliminating Sophie B. Wright, a school that is academically in crisis and is faced with shortages like those I've experienced at Walker. The proposal to displace this shortage-ridden, low-achieving school to make way for a Lusher high school exposed the blatant, system-wide disregard for the 31,000 students in the Orleans Parish public schools that, like Wright, are classified as being in 'crisis' status as per state guidelines. Suffice it to say that Lusher students don't have a textbook shortage. They also aren't dealing with low-achieving students who are dumped on the school from other sites. As a part-CWAS school, Lusher can be picky about most of the students it admits. The opposite was true for Wright.

I am not opposed to any parent who is fighting for the best education programs this city can provide. It is the duty and obligation of any intelligent parent to do so. However, thousands in our city have no guardian capable of speaking for them, encouraging them and giving them hope. Almighty God asked the question: 'Who will speak for them?' When the question of Lusher's expansion arose, leaders such as school board president the Rev. Torin Sanders and the Rev. Anthony Mitchell stood up, saying, 'Take me, here am I.'

The public school system was originally established to provide a suitable education for poor and working-class families who could not afford a private education. Unfortunately, public education throughout most of the major inner cities of America has reversed its focus. Now, those inner-city schools actually impede certain students from acquiring an education that would suit them for anything but the lowest-paying jobs. In New Orleans, the tourism industry benefits from having plenty of poorly educated graduates who are available to work as housekeepers and porters in the city's hotels and convention spots.

I have a daughter at Ben Franklin Senior High, a great school with an accelerated curriculum that I love. Can anyone explain to me how a school with the state's highest achievers can exist in the very same district that has the state's lowest-scoring schools? This condition could only exist in a system that has reverted to segregation.

The proposed Lusher school expansion was an example of how this 'separate but unequal' system works. Students at Lusher High would have had to meet admission criteria that would have been separate, and unequal, from the admission criteria used for non-Lusher students, including Sophie Wright students. Secondly, Wright students remaining in the school would have had a separate curriculum and separate school dress codes from the Lusher High students. Had the plan gone forward, the two groups of students would have looked different and learned differently under the same roof. It would have provided a startling illustration of how two groups of students can receive separate and unequal treatment even when they attend school in the same building. The greatest thing that separates man from beast is knowledge. Each and every human being has a God-given talent and gift. Proper education is required to bring those gifts out. In this great and powerful nation, it is a crime that most people still live and die not ever knowing what gifts or talents God had placed inside of them.

click to enlarge Walter Umrani works as a supervisor at - ChevronTexaco. He has a son at O. Perry Walker High - School and a daughter at Ben Franklin High School.  - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Walter Umrani works as a supervisor at ChevronTexaco. He has a son at O. Perry Walker High School and a daughter at Ben Franklin High School.
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