Coffee Break: CEO of NOLA's Urban League on Empowering Communities and Doing What's Good for Kids

Apr 27, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

Erika McConduit is the second female to serve as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans in its 75-year history. Under her leadership, McConduit has worked to expand the League's focus on education by placing parents at the forefront and empowering community members in an evolving education reform landscape. A native of New Orleans, I had the chance to chat with McConduit about the city's past, present and what's to come. Do you drink tea or coffee and how do you take it? Tea. Definitely tea…with honey and a touch of milk. What's your overall feeling about education in Louisiana today—especially for low-income children of color? I guess the real question is, is the education being offered in Louisiana good enough for every child in the state? As a mother of three, I can tell you the answer is, no. While education in Louisiana has shown areas of slow yet steady progress over the last decade, the reality is that we are far from realizing the promise of a quality education for every child in our state. Low-income families of color in Louisiana have even greater difficulty accessing fair and equitable opportunities largely due to the impact of educational inequalities. This is critical because while African-Americans comprise 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, we overwhelmingly represent the majority of those unemployed or underemployed, living in poverty and over-represented in our prisons. Children born in households with a median income of less than half that of Whites in Louisiana inevitably start at a disadvantage, and, consequently, rarely if ever catch up. The achievement gap between African-Americans and whites in Louisiana is 25 percent, while the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged children and those who are not is 29 percent. These gaps persist across a number of areas including high school and college graduation rates with a far-reaching impact on the African-American community. However, if New Orleans is any indication of what’s possible, then there’s hope for the future. African-American students demonstrated proficiency gains of 27 percentage points from pre-Katrina to today, and African-American males graduated 5 percentage points higher than the state average, at one of the highest rates in urban cities in the country. We must continue to be vigilant in moving the needle forward and providing necessary supports to all students in Louisiana. When we have equity and excellence, you don’t have to ask about “especially” any group of children because every group will receive the education all of our kids deserve and I frankly believe we have to provide. Reform just won a major victory in Baton Rouge when the Louisiana Board of Education voted to submit its accountability plan to the feds over the objections of the governor, school boards, superintendents, principals and unions. Any reflections on that? I'm thrilled that Louisiana decided to put the urgency of change and progress for our students first in deciding to be one of the states to follow the early submission timeline. Our plan moves the needle to mastery, strongly addresses sub-group performance and the need to fairly serve all students, and rewards both achievement and growth. I am proud of the work that the Urban League and our partners have done to advance equity, accountability and excellence, and I look forward to continuing to advocate strongly that our plan ensures progress, quality outcomes, transparency, fair resource distribution, parent engagement and support mechanisms to promote success for all students in Louisiana. After all, we are responsible for placing into our state students who are either prepared to lead or prepared to lose. New Orleans is set to restore local control over schools in the coming years. What are the ups and downs of that decision? How will this be good for kids? Any risks or concerns? New Orleans must continue to lead the country in showing what major education reform can look like when decision-making and governance is returned to the local community. As a native New Orleanian whose father was a lifelong educator and principal in Orleans Parish, the blow felt by the African-American middle class when teachers were summarily fired, coupled with the unprecedented transfer of the majority of our schools to a state controlled school district, left wounds that have yet to heal. Still, some have expressed concerns over the decision to return, namely will the district maintain the structures created to provide equity and services to the most vulnerable or hardest to serve students. However, New Orleans’ citizens deserve to have a local district intact, although vastly different in composition and scope, as well as the opportunity and right to govern themselves. Our school board has made dramatic improvements in fiscal and performance accountability and has shown a commitment to ensuring equity. I am optimistic about our future and believe that we will continue to be a resilient city unafraid to challenge and successfully accomplish systems-level change, constantly designing and re-designing what works best for our community. As a civil rights organization, do you have any concerns with the new administration in Washington? I believe that anyone can stand up and do the right thing for kids and advocate for equity in public education; that’s not a partisan issue. Obviously, when I see administration officials question or reverse policies that provide the safeguards needed to guarantee fundamental rights, I get concerned. In my role as CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana, I constantly work on behalf of historically disenfranchised individuals to ensure their access to opportunities, education, and pathways to prosperity. We operate critical federally funded programs like Head Start; Project Ready, a 21st- century funded school-based college and career prep program; department of labor workforce programs for opportunity youth and ex-offenders; and an SBA (Small Business Association) funded Women’s Business Resource Center. On a daily basis, we literally see people’s future change for the better. Parents find better schools to fit their child’s special needs, unemployed youth are reconnected to school or work, and households are improved based on services the Urban League provides. For example, the mother of one of the students in our after-school program saw an advertisement for our Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. Since she wasn’t working, she enrolled and successfully completed the course. That mom opened a uniform shop that’s still operating in New Orleans today. Our community cannot afford to lose vital programs that help stabilize it. So I hope we can see more leadership and less partisanship on these issues at the national level because real people and real families don’t want political ideology over pragmatic impact. How can education reform do a better job of engaging with and empowering communities of color? As we know, a common criticism of education reform is that those leading change, from educators to nonprofit leaders, don’t look enough like the students they serve or for whom they are advocating. Most education reformers are White, while the children in communities they work are Black and Brown. As seemingly one of the few African-American women in Louisiana working feverishly in the coveted space of education reform at the policy level, it’s heartbreaking to constantly hear that the reforms were done to us—not with us. I’ve learned that it’s not enough to just make calls for greater engagement among communities of color. If you want to see real change happen, you need to create opportunities for us and make sure there’s support available to take advantage of those opportunities. For instance, in 2015, we launched a program called ULEAD (Urban Leaders for Equity and Diversity), where we recruit members of the African-American community in New Orleans to enroll and choose one of five pathways toward greater involvement in public education: advocacy, human capital, governance, policy or entrepreneurship. Graduates of the program serve on charter school boards, speak out on behalf of equity in New Orleans education, career switch to work directly in education, and even start their own charter schools and education non-profits. We’ve seen great success with our program, and I would love to see similar ones replicated around the country. We are doing our part by providing trained and informed leaders. The gate-keepers to these processes can no longer say they don’t know where to find community leaders poised for this work. Reform is a process. We need leaders to educate and empower parents and the community-at-large now, so we can begin to put the public back in education.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and Foolproofme.com, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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