IDEALISM AMONG THE CORRUPTION

Cedric L. Myers Jr. and four classmates created an after-school tutoring program to help disadvantaged fourth graders pass the LEAP test.

DAVID WALTER BANKS

There has never been a ‘Golden Age’ of public education in New Orleans,” said Joseph Logsdon, the late pre-eminent historian at the University of New Orleans, in a 1991 interview. It was a startling indictment of public neglect, which Logsdon and co-author Donald DeVore reiterated in Crescent City Schools, a commemorative book on the 150th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans Public Schools in 1841.

The summer of 2009 offered an ugly sequel to the authors’ work. On Aug. 21, a federal jury convicted political operative Mose Jefferson of giving former Orleans Parish Public School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms (2000-’04) $100,000 in bribes, then trying to cover up his crimes. Their convictions capped a lengthy FBI probe of NOPS scandals that has to date snared some 30 other individuals for crimes dating to at least August 1997, the bureau says.

However, the testimony of former elected and appointed officials in the Jefferson case – the guilty, the inept or the legally profiteering – somehow failed to articulate how corruption harms the NOPS students themselves.

 That task falls to Cedric L. Myers Jr., who graduated from McDonogh No. 35 Senior High in 2003 – during the same time that Brooks-Simms served as school board president.

“Now, in retrospect, it makes me feel upset and sad to know the people that were in charge of looking out for the kids were actually looking out more for themselves,” says Myers, currently an aspiring broadcast journalist.

Myers says both the $100,000 in bribes and the $913,000 in commissions – which Jefferson allegedly received for corruptly securing $14 million in school contracts – could have been spent on NOPS after-school programs.

Myers has been a fan of such programs, since his senior year at “35” – one of the better-performing NOPS high schools.

In 2002, Myers and four classmates, Christopher Diggins, Janina Jeff, Chastity Jones and Jarrel Newman, created an after-school tutoring program to help disadvantaged fourth graders pass the dreaded LEAP test.

It worked.

Seven months later, nine of 10 kids at the academically challenged Joseph S. Craig Elementary passed the statewide promotional exam.

The price tag?

“Approximately $2,000 for the entire seven months,” says Myers. “Our biggest single expense was $300 for a pizza party at the end of the [school] year.”

“[Myers’] commitment and dedication to our students are reflected not only in improved test scores but also in the hearts of the students he and the other students worked with,” Craig principal Sheila Young said in an October 2003 interview with Gambit.

The students’ success came at a dismal time.

Thousands of students were failing the LEAP tests. A squabbling school board did little to inspire confidence in reform. Some schools were filthy, unsafe and lacked take-home textbooks.

Much of the school system’s $500 million operating budget was ultimately stolen or squandered. It got so bad that the FBI set up shop inside NOPS headquarters in Algiers.

In the summer of 2002, however, Myers and his teammates set out to lift up the hopes of younger children at Craig Elementary, located in the tough Tremé neighborhood.

The seniors’ agenda was simple: They needed to complete a community service project to graduate.

“We also wanted to do something really cool, instead of just volunteering somewhere,” Myers recalls.

They took on the biggest education issue in the city: LEAP tests.

Myers recalls the five teens spent “hours” on “three-way” phone calls planning the project. With the help of Myers’ mother, the students formed a nonprofit, “Initiating a Circle of Education.”

However, raising money proved difficult.

“It was terrible,” Myers says. “We called certain city council people and couldn’t get past the receptionist. We called other city council people and ended up sitting in a lobby.”

Criminal Court Judge Charles Elloie and the late Dr. Morris Jeff Jr. helped the students find $1,200.

Judge Elloie later left the bench under a cloud. “At one point, it seemed like everybody in New Orleans was getting into trouble,” Myers sighs.

Jeff – an iconic professor of social work and the grandfather of teammate Janina Jeff – helped the students with their business plan. He also warned of skeptics among sponsors.

“Dr. Jeff said, ‘People will be nervous because you all look so young,’” Myers recalls.

None of the students was even 18 at the time.

“None of us had a driver’s license either,” Myers says. “We all had to catch the bus.”

Transportation proved key. The students interviewed principals of three schools before selecting the final site for their program. Some teammates had to take two to three buses to visit each school. With the interviews over, the students then met at an O’Henry’s restaurant.

“We talked about the principals we liked, how welcome we felt when we went to the school and which school we felt had the most need,” Myers recalls, brightening. “That’s how we ended up at Craig.”

Principal Young expressed enthusiasm for teaming her kids with older students from a high school with a good reputation. She offered the school’s library as a regular meeting place, Myers says, adding “a huge number” of the children there had failed LEAP. Finally, Craig was a short walk from McDonogh 35.

Over the next seven months, for two hours every Monday through Thursday, the five seniors tutored 10 Joseph S. Craig Elementary students.

The tutors had a lesson plan for each day, dividing up their work by LEAP test categories such as a math, English and science.

“The program, at first, was a challenge because of the high-strung nature of the kids,” Myers says. “We really got to experience what teachers go through on a daily basis. We had to lead by example. If someone is depending on you, you get a lot more motivated. When 10 children are depending on you … you have to be there, even on days when you don’t feel like it.”

When the LEAP scores for Craig came out, McDonogh 35 principal Phillip White warmly congratulated the ICE seniors in his office, Myers recalls.

“[ICE] was the most significant thing I did in terms of helping somebody,” Myers says. “Getting good grades and winning academic awards really doesn’t help anybody else.”

The ICE plan seemed like a model for other failing schools. But if NOPS officials were interested, Myers says, they never told the team, who all enrolled in Louisiana universities after graduating from McDonogh 35 in May 2003.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the old public school system. In 2006, the ICE team reunited in New Orleans for the first Mardi Gras after the storm. Today, seven years after their senior summer initiative began, Myers still calls them his “teammates.”

“I learned that anyone can make a positive difference in the  life of someone else,” he says. “I also gained a renewed sense of hope for the youth of New Orleans. The children can do it, if they want to do it!”

Stopping the corruption that overshadows student potential requires public activism, he says. “Bad things only happen when people aren’t involved or don’t care.”

Optimism and resolve resonate in his voice, as if he looks homeward and sees the glimmer of a Golden Age.
 

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