Education of the "Whole Child" by Sonny Farnsworth

Day 3, NOLA
Since arriving here, we've heard from a vast array of educators, admin- istrators, and other individuals with an investment in both public education as well as the well-being of the city of New Orleans itself. It has become very clear that this is a city divided - ideologically, pedagogically, geographically, and in countless other ways. I don't think there is a single representative, though, who hasn't claimed that their ideal public school is one that educates "the whole child." Frankly, I think that this is more of a catch phrase intended to comfort the listener and reassure the speaker of their own philanthropy and compassion. It's a nice idea, but we've seen that in practice it means something different to everyone who uses it. If in fact the goal of an educational institution is to educate "the whole child," what are the methods it is going to use to accomplish that? And what does a "wholly educated" child look like if it is successful?

We are constantly being reminded of the "failing" state of the schools in New Orleans, either past or current, depending on who you are consulting, as well as the disproportionately high percentage of "at risk" youth in public schools. What no one cares to acknowledge, however, is how racialized and class-specific these terms have become. The "salvation narrative" of education as a solution to all of society's ills is nowhere more apparent than in a city which has faced disaster, and where the system of education is in constant flux as a wide range of parties attempt to assert control and identify the system that will ultimately keep every child afloat. Those parties who have the capability of asserting this power, of course, are often those with the most resources to begin with - people who often have no direct ties with public education, and whose livelihoods are not affected in any tangible way by the day to day operations of public schools.

They are lawyers, accountants, business people, all of whom are sure they know the key to best serving the children and educators on the ground in this de-centralized "system of schools," as we have heard it called. From the outside looking in, they impose their understanding of the daily lives of those moving through the education system in New Orleans on to them, and take any semblance of agency away from those people who should have the most voice and power in the educative process. There is a de-emphasizing of community and sharing of knowledge and instead a focus on those who "know best" re-organizing the education system without the input of those who will ultimately be most directly affected by it.

I have seen a parallel between this motive of salvation through expert knowledge and the operations within the individual schools we have visited, where the methodology of those attempting to "save" failing students becomes unconsciously geared towards homogenizing a population of students. In a city where public schools serve a population of almost 100% students of color and where the overriding opinion of the public schools are that they are "failing," the term "at risk" inevitably becomes synonymous for those outside of the system with "black." These students are seen as needing to be "saved," and they often end up in schools where their culture is denied within the limits of the classroom walls. Uniforms, school creeds, and military-style discipline are administered and regulated by an administration and staff who claim to "sweat the small stuff" and "catch the little things," so that normal childhood behavior is skewed into problematic acting out. More importantly, the intelligence and ability of these students to speak for themselves is constantly denied and ignored. As the children in many public schools being referred to as "innovative" and "unique" are being funneled into a system where they are forced to deny their ability to act on their own behalf, the communities within the city of New Orleans who are served by the public education system are also being told on a macro level that the individuals removed from their learning environments and daily lives know better how to serve their needs.


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