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NOMA screens post-Katrina education documentary ‘The Experiment’

As a reporter for WWL-TV in the two years just after Hurricane Katrina, Ben Lemoine admits that he became a bit desensitized to the gruesome homicides he often covered.

At a certain point, it became “just a job to me,” said the 33-year-old native of Baton Rouge.

For reasons not even clear to Lemoine, that changed with the murder of Nicholas Smith, a high-school freshman whose brother had been gunned down in the same spot just a month before. Lemoine would move to Phoenix for two years to continue his career as a reporter, but he never forgot about Smith, even if the rest of the city had. (No arrests were ever made in the case.)

Smith’s case would be the genesis for The Experiment, a documentary Lemoine wrote, produced and directed that focused on the city’s changing educational system post-Katrina.

As he says of Smith’s murder in a voiceover in the film, “I’d seen kids who’d been killed before, but this night I saw death and I wondered about his life, where he was from, and what could have kept him from ending up like this. If education could be an escape, the least I could do was to try to find out what the options were.”

Lemoine would team up with Leonel Mendez, a cameraman buddy of his from his reporter days, and they spent 300 hours following five families as they navigated the city’s changing educational system post-Katrina, as the flowering of new charter schools gave parents and students another option to the Orleans Parish Public School system, which, by all accounts, had been failing its students and community. (In one graphic in the film, Lemoine shows that before Katrina, only 25 percent of New Orleans fourth graders passed the English section of the LEAP test – the standardized test that 4th and 8th graders must pass to move on to the next grade. Just 31 percent passed the math section.)

Thursday night, an exclusive sneak peak preview of The Experiment was held at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Sponsored by Baptist Community Ministries, GradeResults, Holmes Murphy and the Louisiana Federation for Children, the event had all the pizzazz of a Hollywood premiere, with the children and parents of the five families covered in the film arriving in limousines as well as a red carpet entrance into the museum. Distinguished guests at the preview included former Governor Kathleen Blanco and Congressman Steve Scalise.

In his film, Lemoine lays out the arguments both for and against the charter school system, in which private but non-profit organizations were allowed to take over failing public schools for five years in an effort to turn them around.

One of the main benefits is choice, said Lemoine. Students at charter schools don’t have to live in the school’s district, unlike public schools.

‘The Experiment’ writer/producer/ director Ben Lemoine, left, chats with Leonel Mendez at the screening of the film at NOMA (Linda Friedman photo)

Also, charter school principals have greater autonomy in their decision making. While public school principals are at the whim of the school board in terms of what teachers get paid, what they can teach, and even what books they can use in the classroom, “in a charter school,” Lemoine explains in the film, “the principal usually decides those things based on what works best for that one school, so that person sets the salaries, picks the books, and creates the curriculum.”

Statistics show the system is working. “Overall, New Orleans schools are producing more success,” says Lemoine near the conclusion of The Experiment. The city now leads the state for improved performance. Before Katrina, 66 percent of all New Orleans public schools were rated academically unacceptable. As of the 2010 school year, that number had dropped to 26 percent.

The film also points out the waves that the charter school experiment was making nationally, at one point showing President Barack Obama touting the “new ideas” and “innovative reforms” that were creating an “improvement in overall achievement that is making the city a model for reform nationwide.”

But for all the national fanfare, some people saw charter schools as “an assault on education, an effort to prove that public schools can be better run by private business,” Lemoine says, describing the views of some. Others in the film saw charter schools as somehow less democratic, taking control of schools away from the people in the community.

In a panel discussion following the film, that point of view was strongly challenged by Dr. Howard Fuller, a distinguished professor of education and founder/director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.

“You can’t have a democracy without an educated populace,” said Fuller. “So this idea that to create a new system that is in fact educating kids is anti-democratic is in itself insane.” And as for people concerned about losing control over their neighborhood schools, “what you’re really concerned about is who controls the flow and the distribution of the money. So ultimately, this isn’t a discussion about these kids, let’s be clear about that. This is a discussion about which adults are going to control the money.”

“My argument,” Fuller added, “is that the upside of these kids getting educated is more important than the downside of the changes that it will bring to the lives of the people who have historically controlled the district. And the other problem is, it’s not like these people who’ve been controlling the New Orleans Public Schools system were getting the money and giving it back to the community – these people are in jail.”

As the educational landscape in New Orleans changed over the course of the documentary’s filming, so, too, did Lemoine.

“It made me look a lot harder at not just the people that are affected by the school system, but everybody that’s involved in the whole system. These kids and their families just showed me undoubtedly that these are people that are fighting, fighting for something better … it blows my mind to see the fight and the strength and the resolve within the people here.”


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