Letter from the Executive Director: The Bigger Conversation

Friends of OPEN,

As I settle into my role as OPEN’s new Executive Director I’ve been having a lot of conversations around the city about equity in schools and OPEN’s part in creating it.

You may have been hearing this word “equity” a lot lately. From school board meetings to casual conversations with educator friends, it seems like the new thing to focus on when discussing what’s right for kids in schools.

But what is equity? And what happened to equality?

I came across this article recently — check it out. It does a good job of illustrating the difference.

Equality is possible when everyone starts from the same place. Though ideal, this is not consistent with the reality of our students who attend school with a wide range of needs. Equity, though, is achieved when we consider and address the starting place itself.

In my first month at OPEN’s helm I have learned that our organization has always been about equity, long before it became a trending topic.

OPEN started in early discussions about what kind of education system to build in post-Katrina New Orleans. In 2007, our founders knew there was more to the conversations that were being held around the city. That what families wanted and vibrant communities needed was bigger than individual theories, personal politics and preferences. They knew that to create what was best for children and communities, greater public voice and participation in the policy making process was mandatory.

For OPEN, equity is nothing new. It’s always been a part of the mission and work. That’s why in 2012 we produced The People’s Agenda, because our system can’t be great if we don’t have a say in it. It’s also why we championed the equitable funding formula that impacts 15,000+ students: because it’s critical to provide resources based on what students need, not what makes adults’ jobs easier.

I have also learned that over the last decade in New Orleans, there have been conversations running parallel to national debates about the requirements for excellence in public education: charter vs. non-charter, public vs. voucher, alternative teacher preparation vs. traditional programs. The city, like the rest of the country, has also seen a range of outcomes as diverse as the issues debated.

There have been charter successes, increased college attendance, advanced common standards, and exceptional new talent in education, but the city is now also grappling with how to serve its population of opportunity youth — nearly 26,000 adolescents and young adults between 16 and 24 who are currently disconnected from education or employment opportunities after having spent majority of their K-12 career in the city’s reformed system. Families question if a majority White, female, non-native teaching force can effectively reach and teach a majority Black student population who come to school with needs specific to their lived experiences in New Orleans.

Many of us here and throughout the nation are connecting the dots between school culture mandates – discipline policies – pushout- and youth interactions with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. (And if you’re not connecting those dots, I just did so for you.)

The city now turns a page in its education story as it begins an 18-month process to unify public schools under OPSB. The majority of the K-12 schools that serve the city’s children are charter. The flexibility of principals to hire teachers from diverse backgrounds remains. A centralized program is in place to help families choose a school option that works best for their particular child. The system has been built. It shows some successes and also glaring evidence that work remains to be done.

So as OPEN moves forward, we focus on what’s best to advance and expand in this system. We are part of a bigger conversation about best practices rather than preferred models. About ensuring students get what they need, instead of what confirms adults’ opinions about what they should have.

OPEN started with the foresight that a bigger, more comprehensive conversation was required that brought people, context and lived experience into education policy and practice. And we have always called it equity.

OPEN remains on the side of ensuring equity through best practices because our kids don’t have time for our politics. To those who are still championing a “one best” school model, we say that models don’t exist outside of context. People, where they’re from and what they value, must be centered in whatever we build. And we must build with people. To their staunchest detractors, we say that throwing stones at the model doesn’t make it better. OPEN welcomes the opportunity to develop solutions with you.

Here at OPEN we offer you an (hopefully enticing) invitation… and a challenge. We first challenge you to elevate the conversation to have only one side: what is best for students, families and communities. That is, to build an education system across preference and politics for the sake of all. We invite you to expand what’s possible by leaving your camps and listening to a different side, not to respond but to understand and, where appropriate, to build. Ultimately, we invite you to be OPEN.