My, how time flies. It seems like only yesterday—actually it was early 2013– that Oprah began filming “the dramatic transformation of John McDonough High School in New Orleans for a film called “Blackboard Wars.” The star of the show was charter entrepreneur Steve Barr, who had founded the Green Dot charter chain in Los Angeles to national acclaim, then moved on to found a new chain called “Future is Now.” FIN was going to work its miracle on John McDonogh and Oprah was going to be there to capture it on film.
This was printed in The Advocate in January 2013:
“NEW ORLEANS — The students of John McDonogh High School will be at the center of a documentary series scheduled to air in March on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
In a news release sent by the network on Saturday, “Blackboard Wars” is described as telling the story of “the dramatic transformation of New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, where more than half of its students fail to graduate.”
The series was filmed over the fall at the school, which has a reputation of struggling academics and violence, particularly after the gaining national media attention when a student was fatally shot in the school’s crowded gymnasium in 2003.
Six hour-long episodes have been filmed thus far.
Last summer, Steve Barr, leader of the charter operator Future is Now, took over the school, which was still failing after six years of being run directly by the Recovery School District.
Barr is known for his aggressive takeovers of schools in Los Angeles and for working closely with teachers’ unions, an unusual approach for a charter operator.
With “unprecedented access,” the news release describes following the adult stars of the show, “education maverick Steve Barr and no-nonsense principal Dr. Marvin Thompson as they embark together on an unpredictable mission to reinvent and revive the struggling school.”
Thompson, who was hired by Barr as a co-principal, previously worked as the superintendent of schools in Roanoke, Va., and then as president of an education consulting company. Barr also traveled around the country to recruit talented teachers.
At a panel discussion held Saturday in California, Thompson, Barr and the show’s producer, Eddie Barbini, addressed questions about distrust from the community, privacy, the use of the word “war” in the title and their educational philosophies.
Asked if he felt the school’s outcome was successful, Barr described his first visit to the school last year, when it was set to close, according to a transcript of the panel discussion.
He said of 261 students enrolled, it was rare to see more than 60 in attendance on any given day.
Currently, he said the school has 409 students and an attendance rate of approximately 80 percent.
One audience member at the panel discussion asked Thompson how, as principal, he could change the attitudes of students who didn’t want to learn.
“It’s not failure or inability to learn,” Thompson said. “It’s the desire to learn and someone to push them. Most of us in this room had someone to push us. … These young people don’t have that. So we have to meet them at their most fundamental level, which is their most basic self-esteem need, which is love first.”
The miracle is already captured on film. The secret is out: No one was pushing those kids until FIN arrived.
Except the miracle didn’t happen.
In January, 2014, the news got out that McDonough was closing. Steve Barr said it was closing for renovations, and he didn’t want to disrupt “the culture.” Louisiana blogger Crazy Crawfish pointed out that enrollments were falling, test scores were abysmal, and costs were astronomical for the school. Some “culture.”
At a board meeting of the charter last spring, Steve Barr said there were too many high school seats in the Recovery School District, and McDonough was closing simply because of supply-and-demand.
“As John McDonogh High’s leaders begin the process of closing the New Orleans school, charter chief Steve Barr took the opportunity at a no-quorum board meeting Tuesday to give his explanation of what went wrong. He said the problem boiled down to supply and demand.
State Education Superintendent John White told him that New Orleans public high schools had 125 seats for every 100 students, Barr said. “It’s not management. It’s not we don’t know what we’re doing. You can’t run a high school with 300 kids.”
John McDonogh had 311 students as of Oct. 1, 2013, down from 389 the year before.
The state Recovery School District decided to close the historic New Orleans building for renovations, and Barr’s Future Is Now charter group will not be in charge when “John Mac” reopens. The school has posted dismal test scores in its first two years of a failed turnaround and was called “the most dangerous school in America” in an Oprah television network miniseries.
Tuesday was the charter board’s first meeting since the closure was announced. Two board members attended — John Hope and Charles Fenet — and no members of the public.”
So, no dramatic transformation, no turnaround. Steve Barr returned to California to become leader of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform.
Mercedes Schneider explains what happened next:
“McDonogh closed in June 2014. As a part of washing its hands of New Orleans, Barr’s ironically-named Future Is Now (FIN) left behind equipment that the Recovery School District (RSD) (another ironic name) is auctioning off in the aftermath of the FIN-RSD divorce.
“On October 11, 2014, RSD auctioned off laptops that still had student information on them, including student social security numbers.”
More broken promises. More charter churn. Will Oprah return to New Orleans to report on the failure of FIN? To write FINIS to FIN? Don’t count on it.