Coming to Grips with Elite Public High Schools

The original campus of Benjamin Franklin High School on 719 South Carrollton Ave., from 1957 to 1990. It is now Audubon Charter Middle School.

New Orleans     Some of my class at Benjamin Franklin High School came together over the weekend in New Orleans to celebrate largely surviving over the many years since we graduated.   Our class stood for something though it’s unclear how well.  Our class had been the first public high school class to be integrated in New Orleans.  We also graduated into the Vietnam War and mandatory conscription.  Both of these events should have defined us and in many ways perhaps they did, but not always in the best of fashion perhaps.

Integration of the school system had begun in 1960 at the elementary school level and was slated to precede grade after grade until all schools were fully integrated under the court order.  Franklin did not meet any “separate but equal” case because the school had been organized as the only special college preparatory school with entry based on scoring above 120 on IQ tests and over 85% as I recall on standardized achievement tests.  On that basis the first more than a dozen African-American students were enrolled in our class, accounting for perhaps 10% of the entering sophomores at the time.  There were not the same incidents that had accompanied integration at the grade school level, but there were minor catcalls and a boycott of our athletic teams by all other public schools so that we played against smaller private schools and huge parochial schools which were willing to stand on the same field with us.

On the other hand the elitism of the school’s ideology, especially for a publicly supported institution, was always politically controversial and made the institution a constant lightening rod for conflict which was often intensified, because the program was tone deaf about the city, citizens, and taxpayers that footed its bills and the city’s emergence as a majority African-American polity.  There was a false sense of entitlement that was pervasive in all aspects of the school’s culture, and a sense that many brought to the school that it was a “ticket out of town” rather than serving as preparation for contributions to the community.

The unwavering racism of the culture ensconced in such elitism also meant that at the time to matriculate at Franklin entailed maintaining an artificially high average of over 80 (as I remember) rather than 70 as the “failing” grade.  Whether because of that barrier or by exercising an exit strategy and voting with their feet, our class ended up with only one African-American graduate.   Perhaps not surprisingly, the reunion committee was neither able to locate nor therefore to convince our one African-American graduate to attend.

Needless to say all that has been forced to change over the decades.  IQ tests have been roundly attacked and fallen into disuse as culturally inaccurate barometers of education and intelligence.  Standards on achievement tests and retention have also forced more balance in the school, though it still doesn’t reflect the district or the city’s racial percentages, it has made gradual and grudging progress over the years.  Sadly, the school jumped after Katrina to brand itself as a charter school which was simply an usurpation of a huge public asset, since there was no way that a school always ranked among the top high schools in the country nationally could be seen as under-performing or endangered.  The school’s administration and some of its elite backers, including malcontents on the elected school board, had bridled under the constant pressure for accountability on admissions standards and resource allocations despite having been forced by a compliance order involving all of the district’s magnet schools by the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, something that some like to try to forget and sweep under the door.

The class, led by my old buddy, Dan Russell, now professor at Springfield College, decided on a class gift at the prompting of the development department at Franklin (a public school with a development department says quite something as well!) to try to finance building a “diversity garden,” which seems like a good thing in trying to put the best foot forward from our difficult past.  Talking to Russell, it seemed likely that by sheer force of will, the project can be actualized and was gaining significant, even if not unanimous, support of the class.

If our class emerged from the civil rights movement it was equally true that it was defined on its graduation by the Vietnam War.  In a rarity for a class graduating in that era, we had no deaths in Southeast Asia that I can find, and in fact relatively few veterans.  This was a “2-S” class before the draft lottery was instituted, bringing some semblance of equity to that disaster as well.  In fact with hardly a 10% mortality rate on the class, we have probably dodged more bullets than most of our generation.

Looking at the list of the class was interesting.  I started with a bias before doing a back-of-the-envelope analysis.  Had the taxpayers of New Orleans whose property taxes paid a lot of the bills for this kind of high school gotten a good bargain in educating the “future leaders of the city” as they often argued in our time or was this just a special subsidy for select individuals financed by the taxpayers?   At first glance I thought it likely that New Orleans had not gotten much of a deal here.  Looking at the numbers more deeply, I’m not so sure of that.

In this class the percentages breakdown this way of those still alive and where they ended up:

  • 11%                       New Orleans
  • 20.5%                    Other Louisiana (including New Orleans suburbs)
  • 14.4%                    Texas
  • 21.7%                    Other Southern States
  • 16.3%                    Eastern States
  • 9.6%                      Western States
  • 4.8%                      Midwestern States
  • 2.4%                      Foreign Countries

Some explained the obvious non-New Orleanian majority because of the accidental nature of their family’s presence in the city during the oil and space boom which imported solid, living wage and professional jobs into New Orleans.  My family was part of that same relocation to Louisiana with time spent in Wyoming, Colorado, and Kentucky before New Orleans as we followed the oil industry from place to place.  But none of that would have justified public expenditures one way or the other or certainly been sufficient rationale for some kind of special educational entitlement.

On the other hand given that a lot of the money that supports schools also comes from the taxpayers of Louisiana and that almost one-third of the graduates are still in-state, that’s not as shabby as my first suspected when I looked at only 13% still living in the city.  Looking at the class residency 69.9% stayed in the South and therefore contributed to the South as a whole. The South needs to keep as many potential resources as possible, though this also seems positive, though it also aligns with the general industrial and jobs shift to the overall Sunbelt over the last several decades so it may reflect an echo more than a choice.  Almost 70% sticking to the South in one way or another by luck, fate or the winds of fortune seems like perhaps the federal government’s contribution to the New Orleans public school system might have been a reasonably good deal as well.

Maybe by the time of the next reunion I will have a better fix on not only my own very mixed feelings about my experience in high school at Franklin back in what seems pre-modern times before history itself, and maybe not.  These issues of equity and community investment in education and how they really serve citizenship and full participation in society are not easily resolved, especially within an elite structure no matter how well intentioned or how well concealed.

Ben Franklin High School today on Leon C Simon

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