Steve Barr’s Charter School “Fake” Reality Show Outrages New Orleans Community

Executive producer Eddie Barbini, Dr. Marvin Thompson, Principal, and Steve Barr (left to right) press event promoting "Blackboard Wars" in Pasadena, California

New Orleans    This New Orleans high school on elegant Esplanade Avenue is called “John Mac,” short for John McDonogh High School.  This was my “district” high school as a teenager in New Orleans.  The imposing building isn’t two miles from Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, City Park, and Bayou St. John.  But, somehow in the televised frenzy of serial exploitation of anything and everything in the name of “reality” and the profit from any viewer eyeballs that can be held to a screen, John Mac is about to debut on the Oprah Winfrey OWN channel in March as “Blackboard Wars” with a new sobriquet as “one of the most dangerous and under-performing schools in the country.”

Why would any school district ever give permission to such a breach of their children’s privacy?  Whose interest could this possibly serve?

Well of course the school is a Recovery School District (RSD) operation run by the State of Louisiana and turned over only this year to a charter operation.  No sign from the report on this mess in the Baton Rouge-based The Advocate that the state or even RSD had anything to do with this.  They might have wanted such a show in some passive-hostile way to make the case that the school sucked, and they were bringing in charters to save the day.  On the other hand the state education department people are from Louisiana and Louisiana is the home of a bakers’ dozen worth of weird reality shows, so truthfully they would have known that there was really no way that anyone ever comes out looking good from any of this, especially Louisiana.  Ex-governor Edwin Edwards, recent out of prison and married to a new young blonde just announced one called “The Governor’s Wife” or some such:  people do this for money – period!

So, let’s look at the charter operator, because that might be the real angle.

Steve Barr and his latest charter operation called  Future is Now  just took over John Mac.  Barr is well known among charter reformers for work in California with Green Dot, which he founded and then left in recent years.  Barr had the reputation of taking on the hardest schools in Los Angeles and making a difference.  Initially, Green Dot also stood out because they were pro-union, rather than anti-union, and agreed to contracts to protect the teachers.  Five years ago I talked to him on the phone several times about partnering with ACORN to do something with New Orleans schools.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to believe anything other than that Barr agreed to John Mac taking a reality show beating in order to promote his new charter operations and for personal aggrandizement.

In the donnybrook reported by Kari Dequine Harden from The Advocate, it is harder to avoid the facts that argue that case.   Let’s start here:

“Barr said the show’s producers approached him several years ago about documenting the turnaround of a high school under his management.”

Barr just came on the scene at McDonogh last summer.  At best only the fall semester is under their belt.  If there were a turnaround, it wouldn’t have happened in a matter of a few months.  Barr couldn’t be much clearer.  This is about him, not McDonogh, its student body, and their challenges.

Pure promotion?  Sure!  To establish that McDonogh is among the “most dangerous” schools in America, the filmmakers pulled a clip of a tragic incident that was 10 years old.  The principal claimed on the air that several students were killed.  In fact there was one killed, which was tragic enough that it needed be blown up for its more exploitative impact.  Talking about McDonogh as “most dangerous,” former McDonogh administrator Shawon Bernard asked, “Based on what?”

In fact it seems that the new co-principal, Marvin Thompson, was stumbling all over himself as he tried to put fact and fantasy together, and it seems Bernard nailed him repeatedly in the meeting:

“Bernard asked producers to make sure that their facts are accurate.  She pointed to inaccuracies in a YouTube video during which Thompson talks to a group of volunteers in the school’s auditorium three months following his arrival….In the video, Thompson said that when he arrived none of the students he encountered fit the stereotypes of being part of a violent and dangerous school, but they were frustrated with the image and negative legacy.  However, Bernard pointed out that Thompson himself was contributing to the misconceptions in the video….Bernard, who said she was in charge of books at the school, took offense at Thompson’s assertion in the video that, ‘We are actually going to give them books for the first time.’ ‘We had books,’ she said.”  (Emphasis added!)

You get the picture.  Reports from the meeting go on and on like this.  The charter folks would make claims, and then community residents would dispute them with facts, and then Barr would accuse them of “trespass” and “terrorizing teachers.”

A volunteer said she was “troubled by the exploitation of the children” and accused Barr by saying, “…you are here to profit from our children and our community.”  Barr responded that he was not receiving money personally from the producers or the show and claimed that the school would “receive a per episode sum of money, but Barr said he could not confirm the amount.”

What?  Are you kidding me?  Are we really supposed to believe that the producers reached out to Barr to do this show, that Oprah picked up the show, and that they agreed to a per episode amount, but that Barr is clueless about the exact number”  Come on!

Jerome Smith, a well regarded civil rights and community activist and leader for decades in New Orleans and in this area, was quoted saying that “the film makes it appear that ‘no one in the community can serve the community,’ and that ‘the political games played on the children are astounding.’”  That’s just about a death sentence in terms of community support.

Barr claimed the film would offered some rational for the film but most of his reported argument would be his standard rap for selling his charter program, which kind of brings us full circle in asking as so many members of the community did, “Who benefits from this mess other than Barr?”  Certainly no one in New Orleans is uplifted by fantasy and stereotypes.

I was left wondering as well because even though I had a clue about this weird docudrama reality show, I know people well who work with Barr and this operation.  We had reached out and offered to connect them to community organizations.  No follow-up.  No reply.  I had offered them space at Fair Grinds for training or staff meetings.  No follow-up.  No reply.

Autonomy, unaccountability, and too much of this charter mess is simply not about education or the children, and the coming OWN series “Blackboard Wars” and its continued attack on New Orleans, the community, the students, and our schools is part and parcel of yet more gut punches at our struggling city and its people.  Eventually it needs to be about us, and not about them.  “Blackboard Wars” is shaping up as another tragic case study on that the constant colonial theme oppressing the city now and seriously depressing our future.