Where is Community in NOLA Schools? by Max Schuner

Day 5, NOLA
Since returning to New Orleans this week, I’ve been struck again and again by the role of geography in the psychological and political life of this city. Neighborhood location and physical structures (roads, bridges, and canals) are huge determinants in threat of flooding, access to resources (including educational), and one’s self-defined culture. This is perhaps the “traditional” notion of community— a group of people bounded both by geography and social ties that has found some level of internal cohesion. In New Orleans, this “traditional” notion of geography is still extremely important in social and political life. The Upper Ninth Ward, the Seventh Ward, the West Bank and the Garden District are all important social sites and nodes of identity for their residents. After Katrina, I could see the significance of geographic-social community and networks of ground-level personal relationships in basic survival and maintenance of dignity of New Orleans residents. As a relief worker (and now as a visiting researcher), I struggled with this idea of community and had trouble defining and reconciling my own role as a white person not born in New Orleans as someone working in the Upper Ninth, a community largely defined by race, geography, and a deep common history.

Of course, “com- munity” is a floating signifier. Over the past week, I’ve heard “com- munity” used to describe an educational community of practice, the city of New Orleans in general, and the city’s political and business elites in particular. It’s been this last meaning that has been the most difficult for me to reconcile. I can see the thought behind it- in the view of some, political and business “leaders” are natural spokespeople for the rest of the socio-geographic community that is New Orleans. However, it’s also hard to deal with the fact that many people working in education see the businesses and politicians that have benefited from social and racial segmentation as being able to make decisions for the people (young, poor, largely black students) who have suffered from the city’s prevailing race and class structures.

These different ideas of community seem to be heavily mobilized in dis- cussions of charter schools and school choice. Again and again this week, people across the spectrum have iden- tified the dissolution of neighborhood schools and the institution of cross-town travel to schools as one of the most important aspects of the post-Katrina educational landscape. This seems like a major shift from geographically bounded ideas of community. In some ways the shift might be positive. While idealized concepts of community are nice, it does seem like youth culture in New Orleans was plagued by a deep territorialism that made it difficult to make connections between neighborhoods. Students attending schools across town might help lessen that dynamic. However, the change also weakens the potential for schools to be hubs of positive development and safe spaces in local geographic communities. The new New Orleans schools have unpinned geographic notions of community for students in a way that mirrors the deterrorialization process that has long been identified as a factor of globalization. This compounds the loss of rootedness that affected many of the city’s residents who were displaced by the storm.

This is a city with a deep history of strong geographic communities. Although it’s important not to idealize this history, as rooted in segregation as it is, it should also be recognized as a great source of resilience. Those of us interested in education in New Orleans should ask how schools can be spaces that strengthen and reinforce strong neighborhoods.

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