My Mission to Educate Black Children Hasn’t Changed Now That I’m in a Charter School

Mar 15, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Jamar McKneely

As an educator, my focus is always on kids and how to help them reach their full potential. And as a Black man in New Orleans, I am committed to making sure children of color here can envision a positive future. But the recent murder of two of our former students—both high school graduates and one who had also completed college—drove home just how far we still have to go to provide this generation with opportunity and hope. With 105 shootings in New Orleans already this year and  99 percent of arrested youth in our city are Black juveniles, it is clear that we need to marshal every idea possible to break the cycle of violence for our young people of color. That’s why [pullquote position="right"]I am a Black educator who supports charter schools[/pullquote], choice and accountability because they are uniquely positioned to provide educational opportunities that will help our young people thrive. It’s no secret that many people in the community have strong feelings about charter schools. While I respect critics of charter schools, the reality is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to education. Here in New Orleans, charter schools offer parents a chance to find an environment that will inspire their children to achieve. If we are truly committed to the advancement of our young people, we have an obligation to explore every alternative that is providing hope and opportunity.

Nothing But the Facts About Charter Schools in NOLA

That’s why I’d like to address a few common myths about charter schools vs. the reality that I experience as a charter school educator in New Orleans. The first myth is that charters are for profit entities that make money from kids. The reality is that that under Louisiana law, all charters must be nonprofit organizations. T here are no for-profit charter schools in New Orleans. The second myth is charters select the best students and leave the failing students behind. Louisiana law requires that charter schools must be open to all students and selection criteria are allowed for only five schools in New Orleans. Through the ‘OneApp’ process, New Orleans charter schools enroll students on a first-come, first-served basis. Currently 92 percent of New Orleans schools participate in the oneapp serving all families regardless of background. At InspireNOLA, our demographics largely mirror that of the Recovery School District (RSD), with 98 percent African-American students, 84 percent receiving free- or reduced-price lunch and 14 percent identified as special education. We want to serve the same students as the RSD because we are committed to helping the children of New Orleans—especially those most in need—achieve to the highest level The third myth is that charter schools leadership in New Orleans is not diverse or connected to the community. If you look across the NOLA charter school landscape, you’ll see that diversity is on the rise. I am one of over 60 educators of color in the Alliance for Diversity and Equity (ADE), a new organization that is working to advocate for diverse leadership in New Orleans’ public schools, especially in charter schools. The vast majority of ADE members are New Orleans natives who are deeply committed to preserving the unique culture of our city. The final common myth is that charter schools receive more money than other public schools. Our InspireNOLA schools and all charters in Louisiana operate with the same funding as every other public school in the state. Any outside funding that we receive comes from writing grants that are available to other public schools. What the critics often overlook is that it’s not funding or students that makes us different; it’s what we do to create positive school culture that sets charters apart. As the leader of InspireNOLA, I strive to marshal every creative solution possible to meet the learning needs of the African-American students who we serve. For example, our students are reading books from the “March” series about the life of civil rights leader John Lewis. To drive these lessons home, we brought U.S. Congressman John Lewis to our school to share his story in person and inspire the students to believe in the power of education. It was only because of the flexibility our charter allows that we could use time and funding to bring this powerful learning experience for our students.

The Only Question That Matters

We live in world where it’s easy to take sides on any issue, but when it comes to public education and the future of disadvantaged students, only one question really matters: How can we ensure that all students have a path to a future where they can reach their full potential? When I was a teenager, I was kicked out of numerous schools due to academic and behavior issues and I struggled to be motivated about my education. That’s why when I look at the faces of my students at InspireNOLA schools, I often see myself, and I relate to their skepticism about the value of staying in school. But that’s what drives me, as an educator and charter school leader, to keep looking for ways to give them hope for the future is the belief that their effort will yield results that matter. The two students we lost this year will never have a chance to pursue their dreams, but we owe it to the other kids of in New Orleans, especially the most disadvantaged, to offer public school options where a bright future is possible.
Photo courtesy of InspireNOLA.

Jamar McKneely

Jamar McKneely is chief executive officer and co-founder of InspireNOLA. He spent seven years as a teacher and assistant principal at Edna Karr High School before becoming principal of Alice Harte Charter School. In 2013, together with the principal of a nearby high school, he created InspireNOLA charter schools, a new organization that manages two schools. He earned both a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in educational administration from Southern University in Baton Rouge. Prior to becoming an educator, he worked as a budget analyst for two non-profit organizations in Baton Rouge.

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