After years of controversy and debate, the board governing Lusher Charter School officially voted on Thursday to change the school’s name to … something to be decided.
At an emotional meeting that lasted almost four hours with 90 public comments, the Lusher board voted against renaming the school after pediatric oncologist Jeanne Marie Lusher. The four board members who opposed keeping “Lusher” in the name were Alysia Loshbaugh, Rachel Wisdom, Kiki Huston and George Wilson, while the two members willing to consider it were Brenda Bourne and Gary Solomon.
“We are not the name. We are the community. We are the students. We are the faculty,” Wisdom said. “We are our tremendously talented administration. Changing our name will not change us.”
But while it’s clear that the school will no longer be associated with segregationist Robert Mills Lusher, the board members for the Advocates for Arts-Based Education Corp., the nonprofit group that runs Lusher Charter School, did not come to a decision about what the new name will be.
Instead, they decided that they would form a study group that would hire a consultant who could guide them through the renaming process, this time taking more community input into account. That means it could be another four months before Lusher gets a new name.
“Don’t rush into picking a name,” Loshbaugh said. “Pick a good name.”
The school, which opened in 1913, was originally named after Robert Mills Lusher, a tax collector for the Confederacy and an avowed segregationist. He despised the thought of educating Black students so much that he resigned from his post as state superintendent of education so that he wouldn’t have to oversee schools that served both Black and White students. The school dropped “Robert Mills” from its name and became simply “Lusher” in 1976, when it became a magnet school.
The Advocates for Arts-Based Education board voted in September to rename the school. The Orleans Parish School Board had already changed the name of Lusher’s two school buildings as part of its broader goal of renaming buildings named after segregationists and slave-owners. (OPSB has the power to change the name of school buildings that it owns, but not the names of the schools themselves, as they are run by independent charter organizations.)
The board appointed a study group that surveyed the community and solicited ideas for a new name. The group suggested three finalists for the board to select for its online meeting on Thursday: the New Orleans Charter School of Arts and Science, Lusher Charter School in honor of Jeanne Marie Lusher and Willow Charter School.
However, Loshbaugh immediately motioned to remove Jeanne Marie Lusher as an option. An hour of public comment followed, and the vast majority of community members who spoke expressed outrage at the idea of still keeping the name “Lusher” in any form, especially since Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher had little connection to New Orleans outside of a few years she spent at Charity Hospital in the 1960s.
‘The name Lusher in our community is toxic’
“I hate the idea of telling someone that I go to Lusher,” said a fifth-grader named Fiona, who identified herself as mixed-race.
“The name Lusher in our community is toxic. It’s time to move on,” said parent Ann Kaufman.
Lusher math teacher Jerome White said that his opposition to the name “Lusher” stemmed from his larger concerns about diversity at the school. “Can you understand why I’m frustrated? I’m a Black man who is disheartened to see fewer and fewer students who look at all like me attend the school that I have devoted myself to year after year,” White said.
Currently 1,869 children attend the selective-enrollment school across two campuses in Uptown. About 22% of its students are Black and 59% are White, and 23% are economically disadvantaged, according to data from the state Department of Education. In comparison, 76% of all New Orleans public school students are Black and 84% are economically disadvantaged.
Almost one out of every four White students (23%) in the New Orleans public school system attends Lusher, highlighting the persistence of racial segregation in the city’s education system.
‘The brand is worth keeping’
But while the vast majority of commenters were in favor of removing the name Lusher, some argued that the name no longer had any connection to racism.
“Lusher is synonymous with success. It is synonymous with academic achievement,” said faculty member Claire Ory, adding: “If you have removed it, you have removed my voice.”
“I want to see Lusher in some kind of connotation in my son’s college applications,” said parent Richard Exnicios.
And Michael Cowan, husband of Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger, said he understand the rationale on both sides of the issue. “The tone of this debate has taken on a poisonous quality,” he said.
Board member Gary Solomon said he thought that the people protesting against the name were just “a small group of people who are speaking out loudly,” not representative of the school community as a whole. “The brand is worth keeping,” he said.
Brenda Bourne, the only Black member of the board, agreed that the issue was painful but that, in her experience as an administrator at the school, the word Lusher was never associated with Robert Mills.
“Never once did we celebrate Robert Mills. He was never honored. He was never celebrated….[the name] had nothing to do with racist, segregationist views,” she said.
Little agreement on any name
Board member Kiki Huston agreed that when her children attended Lusher, “we never knew who Robert Mills was.” But, she said, times change, and now the name is associated with racism.
With deep emotion in her voice, she said, “I think that the name Lusher at this point has to go. It is in no way a reflection of the program or of the people at the school, but we’re hearing from too many people that it causes pain.”
However, the other two suggested board names did not draw much excitement from anyone at the meeting. Several members of the public complained that Willow Charter School said nothing about the school’s character or values, and that the New Orleans Charter School of Arts and Science could easily be confused with the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Many students and parents suggested naming the school after Esther Alexis, a beloved special education teacher at Lusher who passed away at the tragically young age of 35 in 2017. One student said that Alexis “taught me more in two years of elementary school about the importance of character and kindness than any schoolbook.”
Henry Morse, a junior at Lusher, agreed. “She was by far one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had,” he said.
Morse chided the board for not listening to student voices about this issue. “It’s our school,” he said. “It’s the school that is meant to teach students, and we were not part of the process. That’s beyond disappointing.”
Board member Rachel Wisdom admitted that Willow Charter School was “generic” but also “safe.” She said she fears that at this point, it would be too risky to name the school after anyone at all. “The school should not be named for a person because there are issues that can come up that you just can’t anticipate,” Wisdom said.
Calling in a branding specialist
Solomon suggested that the board should hire a branding consultant firm to guide the process of finding a new name. Wisdom agreed that the board needed help: “We should probably engage someone to help us, because this is a little bit too much for us, honestly.”
However, this led to some backlash from participants in the meeting, who decried the idea of spending precious school funds on a pricey branding firm.
“We do not have subs. We are paying teachers to give up their planning periods in order to cover classes,” said teacher Jan Hemmings. “You don’t need to spend more money on another administrative ploy.”
Other commenters agreed that it would be good to get professional help, but suggested hiring a more affordable local consultant instead, or even paying Lusher teachers to guide the process.
The board decided to convene another study group to continue the renaming process. Board member George Wilson estimated the process would take another four months – and students made it clear that they would not tolerate graduating with a diploma from a school named after Robert Mills Lusher.
“I just want to graduate with a name that I can be proud of,” said senior Abigail Bix. “I want to say that I went to this really awesome school and not a school named after a racist.”
Reporter Sharon Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.