Posted October 13th 2018 at 8:55 am by
in Education, Narratives of Self-determination

Schools are the City: Why Planners Should Care about Education

# 19 – M.Augillard, 2018

I grew up knowing from earliest memory that the New Orleans school system was bad. Academics didn’t matter come Friday night as everyone hung on every move of the city’s quarterbacks and drum major, but come Monday we returned to talking about the failing schools. This particular city struggle was reported frequently and pervasively, as if the reports were rehearsing for opening night at the Apollo…

“These schools are so bad…”
“How bad are they?”
“These schools are so bad these kids are learning more when they’re closed”

Though I was young and definitely not a rising comedian, somehow the way the city seemed to dog itself wasn’t so funny. The Times Picayune published the standardized test questions meant to evaluate students’ readiness for middle and high school. These weren’t published as a way to increase public knowledge about the test, but rather to prove their ease and underscore how ill- equipped the city’s student were as they moved the next grade or graduated anyway. These images of the New Orleans school system were reinforced in overheard adult conversation and repeated amongst children—particularly as we got older and began finding our position within school social structures.

For us, our schools were our city; it was how we organized ourselves and related to one another. You can’t go anywhere, meet anyone in New Orleans without hearing, “What school you go to?” The plethora of answers were coded, and we all understood the meanings. We knew which ones were hard (code: good academically, private school), good at sports, for the “weird” kids, for the bad boys, housed the hippies, or were just last resorts. Parents understood these meanings as well (maybe slightly less nuanced, but still), and at times, internalized them. In the case of my mother, these internalized meanings manifested in my lifelong private schooling, by any means necessary.

When I was older, I asked my mom, “Why did you pick St. Martin’s for me?”

She replied, “I knew I didn’t want you to go to Catholic school, even though your father wanted you to go to Ursuline. I said no. I’d always wanted you to go to one of the independent schools that was K-12 and I would have put you there in pre-school, but your father convinced me to send you to Catholic school to receive your First Communion. When we were going to make the switch, I toured the other independent schools—St. Martin’s (STM), Newman, Country Day— and I liked STM the best. At Newman, they asked, “What do you and your husband do for a living?” And since we weren’t doctors or lawyers, they weren’t interested in us. Though there was no diversity at STM I felt that even though it was a white school, they cared and would care about you as an individual student. St. Martin’s felt good. They made me feel welcomed.”

St. Martin’s, a private, Episcopalian, predominately white, largely affluent college preparatory school located in a neighborhood of the same make-up, did feel right. I learned so much (academically, socially, and personally) and encountered so many people I would otherwise not have if I stayed in my neighborhoods (New Orleans East and The West Bank-Jefferson side). In this way among others, my schooling was successful. But it came at a cost. I owe everything I am to my mother’s endless sacrifices. In this moment though, let us move past the monetary cost and financial burden striving for educational excellences places on families. We’ve all heard the stories of the incredible lengths moderate- and low-income parents have gone through to attempt to ensure bright futures for their children, and it just goes without saying: Private school is expensive no matter where you live.

Instead, I want to speak about a different cost. As I advanced through grade levels, invested more time in my school and surrounding community, I continued to grow away from the city’s black community. In New Orleans, fighting for future prosperity through my present education meant inherently losing connections with the larger black community. To go to a “good” school meant not just going to private school; it meant going to “white school.” Becoming disconnected from my community meant by extension becoming disconnected from New Orleans. Now as a professional, I have a waning desire to return to New Orleans and contribute to its economic resiliency and the resiliency of its African American community.

I’m just one story, one person.

What does that mean for the sustainability of a people? Moreover, what becomes of a system that isolates certain communities to the point of forcing them to contemplate these decisions in the first place? In short, people should not have to choose between quality education and a connection to their community. Seeking answers to these questions is what initially brought me to planning school.

When I speak to people in various fields about my interests, I’m often asked the same questions, “What does education have to do with urban planning? Where’s the connection?” To me, the answer is simple: everything. However in these questions, I realize the deep need for not just the general public, but for education and planning professionals to connect the education’s effect on urban system, and vice versa, urban systems effect on education.1 Just as transportation or infrastructure are a part of the city, so too is education. We organize our communities, build our homes, buy property, zone districts, get jobs, base salaries, and derive achievement based around education. I have a deep desire to investigate the linage of education policies such as segregation, towards proposing ways that integrating education more deeply within urban planning can begin to correct issue of community development, such as population retention, economic stabilities, or capacity building. Currently this work starts in my own backyard, talking with my mother and all my play-aunts and uncles about what they’ve seen in their lives, and the educational decisions they’ve made or were made for them. I hope to continuing working on this question in New Orleans—interviewing others, taking deep dives into the city’s various archives, photographing the material infrastructure of schooling in the city—but also look forward to investigating these questions in other cities across the country.

1: Leigh Carroll, 2017:

Morgan M. Augillard (MCP ’19) is originally from New Orleans, LA, but has spent the years before enter the Masters in City Planning program at MIT working as an architect in Brooklyn, NY. Now in planning, Morgan is passionate about elevating youth and local voice towards community development, with a particular emphasis on urban educational systems and policy. Morgan’s work seeks to pull people from the footnotes of research and allow them to speak on their own, in their voices.

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