Meagan McKinnon, senior class president at Walter L. Cohen High School, left campus Wednesday afternoon with no idea of the upheaval the coming week would bring to her campus.
Thursday morning, the student body was abuzz with rumors that the school was about to be merged with John McDonogh High School. At an assembly that afternoon, they found out that no merger was planned, but that the New York-based Future Is Now charter group that took over McDonogh this year would be given control of Cohen within a week, and that most of the Cohen administrators and teachers would be replaced.
Stunned, McKinnon and her classmates marched out of the building. They haven’t returned to class since then, instead alternating between protests and class time on the lawn as they demand the decisions be justified or reversed.
A direct-run high school under the Recovery School District with scores near the bottom of the scale, Cohen had been slated for a gradual transition to governance by the New Orleans College Prep charter management group, with each graduating class of Cohen seniors being replaced by incoming College Prep freshman until the last direct-run class graduated in 2014. On Thursday, however, RSD officials announced that because of problems observed with the school culture, the Cohen juniors and seniors would be placed under the governance of Future Is Now for the remainder of the year, with most of the Cohen staff replaced.
On Monday, their third day of protesting, the students held a press conference to present their demands, asking for a role in the decisions being made, for their teachers and administrators to be reinstated, for equal maintenance of their part of the building and for school officials to compile reports comparing the direct-run Cohen students and their College Prep counterparts’ test scores, discipline records and police reports. About 30 or so of the school’s more than 100 students attended, flanked by several dozen adult supporters.
McKinnon said that during her classmates’ walkout, they’ve broken into groups with their teachers to continue their classes outdoor. Cohen students have a great deal of confidence in this year’s teachers, she said, and are worried that the charter will bring in inexperienced recent college graduates to replace them.
“They can’t teach me more than I already know,” McKinnon said, referring to young teachers from Teach For America and other groups. “We need somebody who can teach us above and beyond what we know already.”
Bristling with indignation at the notion that Cohen students are “unruly or ignorant,” McKinnon said the students resent such sweeping decisions being made so abruptly. Her mother graduated from Cohen in 1975, she said, and the officials making these changes have no respect for the tradition that the school represents.
“I think it’s all about money,” McKinnon said.