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Review: Initial Lessons from “Blackboard Wars”

Alexander Russo | February 15, 2013

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The first episode of the Oprah Winfrey Network reality series, “Blackboard Wars,” has been moved up to this weekend. Check out the first five minutes here:

I had the chance to watch the first two episodes and I have to say that I liked it — not because it’s necessarily accurate or even particularly new or original (Locke High School, anyone?) but because it’s a good reminder of the day-to-day struggles, the retail work of making a broken school better.  This is messy, one-kid-at-a-time work done by teachers, counselors, and administrators, and so many of the real setbacks and successes have nothing to do with learning geometry or American history. The fact that it’s a charter conversion — and that so few charter operators get involved in school turnarounds — may be distracting or even troubling for some.

The show opens like any show set in New Orleans these days — street scenes from Treme, muted trumpets, etc. And some of the opening credits are similarly familiar to those of who’ve watched a lot of urban school documentaries (or reality television): sweeping shots of the new principal (baby-faced 48-year-old Dr. Thompson), standing cross-armed in front of the school.

The new teachers include both the stereotypical blonde first-year teacher from Duke (of course she’ll cry, but will she last?) and the somewhat less stereotypical Ms. Campbell, who graduated from the school and helps explain the kids and the culture to the outsiders on the faculty (and among the viewers).

The school is extremely small — 370 students — though the building seems much larger.  The security guards are armed, in khaki uniforms.  The kids are big and often seem immature until you learn what they’re dealing with or where they’ve come from. A lot of the action is in the halls and the counselors’ offices.

Having written about the Locke High School rescue effort, I’m jealous of the access that the camera crew seems to have gotten — including closed circuit TV footage — and can’t help but feeling a sense of deja vu.

There’s the ‘worst school in America” rhetoric, and the charter conversion.

There’s Steve Barr, the eternal outsider, with his baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes.  The chunky black Clark Kent specs are new, but the rhetoric is the same.

There’s Dr. T — a tough if flawed leader who sometimes lets his temper and his need for respect from students get the best of him — in place of Zeus Cubias, the Locke High School administrator who’s great with kids but sometimes loses track of his role as instructional leader (and has since departed from Locke).

What’s different from the Locke story is that there aren’t so far any teachers left over from the “old” school.* Roughly a third of the teachers at Locke were holdovers from the previous regime.   A veteran teacher shows up mysteriously in the second episode and there’s a JROTC guy who might be a holdover, but that’s about it.

And of course, we still don’t know if the McDonogh turnaround will work.  Locke was recently renewed after five years, but I have no idea how closely the Oprah show tracks with what was actually going on in New Orleans during the time period  (Fall 2012) being depicted, or whether things have gotten better or worse since then.

The show trailer caused a lot of concern and upset from the community when it was aired a few weeks ago.  For a little more about that, here.

For some, the absence of unionized teachers will be distracting or even dismaying.  What if Dr. T. makes a bad decision and nobody questions him?  Who’s looking out for the teachers?  What happened to all the teachers who were there before?

For others, the show will highlight the lack of charter operators willing to get involved in turnarounds — that Barr (and Green Dot) are doing dirty work that almost none of the other charter operators are willing to do.  Charter advocates strut around talking about no excuses as if what they’re doing is some sort of educational SEAL Team Six, but they don’t want to risk their reputations or funding to do the hardest job out there.

I’m hoping to talk with Barr and with the producers of the show to get more information about how the story was shaped and how it compares to Locke.  Meantime, check it out on Saturday — it comes on right after the Beyonce show.

*Barr says that while it isn’t made clear in the early episodes I viewed, 7 of the 24 teachers from the old version of the school were kept on.

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