Cover Story

A Few Good Men

A fledgling civic group takes on Lafayette's most vexing challenges, beginning with the biggest of them all - public education.

It's not easy making a difference. Sometimes it takes years, decades, even centuries. Overnight sensation is a rare phrase and is usually better served for movie stars, innovative bars or matronly singers from Scotland. Today, where instant communication and wireless networking are the norm, making a difference still takes time.

It's not easy making a difference. Sometimes it takes years, decades, even centuries. Overnight sensation is a rare phrase and is usually better served for movie stars, innovative bars or matronly singers from Scotland. Today, where instant communication and wireless networking are the norm, making a difference still takes time.

The 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette is a good example. Even its name takes time. The organization - a local chapter of an international organization - has been around our community for over a year but it's a safe guess that most residents have never heard of it. It's not political yet would like to influence policy for the betterment of not only African-Americans but the community as a whole.

The 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette is only one-third toward its goal - having 32 active dues-paying members - and while all are African-American, every race is welcome. No elected officials have joined, though some have been invited; nor have any females signed on - although several have indicated they would like to start their own organization.

The 100 has several challenging programs but really just one goal: It wants to make a difference.

"The BMOGL has four primary drives - education, health and wellness, mentoring and economic development," says Shawn Wilson, vice president of economic development for the group. "None of the missions take precedence over the others."

Created last year, the Lafayette chapter is one of 116 worldwide. It follows the national directive that seeks to implement programs designed to improve the quality of life for African-Americans and other minorities.

"I certainly hope that we'll be considered as an emerging factor and not only for black men," says Chip Jackson, director of Enrollment Services for UL Lafayette and chairman of 100's education committee. "The name could put off some potential members, sure, but I would hope that once people have an opportunity to find out what we're about [that] will be more important than the name of the organization. Since I've been a member, we've spent much of our time trying to get organized and learn the issues we want to address. I'd like to see more members, and I believe we'll have more members, but I'm not concerned right now. For being a year-old organization, we're where we should be."

Where the 100 Black Men are is in the middle of educational battles that have pitted them against the Lafayette Parish School System. Member Greg Davis considers the group a necessary watchdog but is quick to point out the organization is not a political action committee, nor does it desire to become one. "We will not endorse candidates but, yes, we want to influence public policy. There are 30,000 students in the Lafayette system and about 51 percent are of poverty. Part of that poverty exists on the north side of town and most of them are African-American students. To affect the greatest number of kids, we believe that influencing public policy will bring about the best outcome for those kids."

"By definition, a PAC is for one group and against another and we need to be about engaging as many partners as we can," says Jackson. "I'm very proud that we're one of the founding groups of Lafayette Parish Stakeholders Council. This is not just 100 Black men, it's United Way, UL-Lafayette, Citizen's Action Council and LPSS that have come together and said we're about education in our city and the achievement gap."

The education issues facing Lafayette, particularly among minority students, are not the 100's only concern, but they are certainly the most public, and the recommendation to turn N.P. Moss from a neighborhood school into a technical high school is forcing residents to choose sides. The LPSS paid CSRS, Inc., a Baton Rouge company that has done work for both the Zachary Community School System and St. John the Baptist Parish School System, almost a million dollars to recommend what is needed to improve Lafayette Parish public schools; one recommendation was to turn N.P. Moss into a tech high school. The parish school board has yet to decide on the recommendation, but the 100 Black Men are adamantly opposed to the notion.

The 100 have urged the Lafayette Parish School
Board to keep N.P. Moss Middle a neighborhood school.

"We're against it because we would lose Moss as a middle school," says 100 Black Men President Melvin Caesar. "That would mean another movement of busing kids to another school. We're not against the technical high school - that would be a good thing for the community. But our biggest concern is the achievement gap the kids are having on our side of town."

"Until now, N.P. Moss has been a chronic failure," admits Davis. "That's a statement, I believe, about the under-performance of our Lafayette Parish School System relative to N.P. Moss. There should be 800 students at that school right now and it has a capacity for a thousand kids but there are only 400 children attending that school. Why? Because the other 400 chose to go elsewhere to a school that's not classified as underachieving.

"That's not the fault of the children or families that made that decision. It's the fault of a school system that's failed for a number of years to do what's necessary to turn that school around. There are 35 other schools in Louisiana that have high poverty rates but are high-performing schools and have [school performance scores] of 100 or more while the SPS score at N.P. Moss is about 58. So it can be done, but we're not doing it and 100 Black Men is making it their business to make that transparency known so the community can ask the legitimate questions of why have you failed and what are you going to do about it."

These are noble goals the 100 Black Men have set for themselves, but the obstacles in front of them are massive. Forget for a moment the individuals involved and consider instead the huge bureaucracy the LPSS represents. Add to that years of poverty and apathy on Lafayette's poor side of town and one begins to realize the enormity of the task at hand. The district graduation rate is about 68 percent, but the number drops to 58 percent for African-Americans and 55 percent for Northside High. Many who earn diplomas perform below a 12th grade level and all four high-poverty schools - Northside, Moss, J.W. Faulk, Alice Boucher - are in serious trouble.

"Apathy does exist, particularly with communities with high poverty," says Jackson, 100 Black Men's chairman for education, who grew up in New York City's South Bronx, considered at the time to be the worst neighborhood in the country. "And, yes, the schools need to play a part to overcome that and get parents engaged. But the community and organizations like 100 BMOGL have a role to play in partnering with the school district, the city and the police. Everyone needs to work to overcome that apathy."

Melvin Caesar

"It's a total community effort that's needed for this to change," agrees Caesar, an industrial technology instructor at Louisiana Technical College. "It starts at the top with whoever's in charge of resources and (continues) down to those that need support to close the achievement gap, and this includes the parents."

Does no one care? It seems that way sometimes.

"Yes, there's apathy and I really think its fear on both sides," says Arlecia Hill, 26, who taught at J.W. Faulk and Ossun Elementary before moving to her current position at Plantation Elementary. "There's a fear of what the parents are going to ask for or what support they're going to offer and I just don't think everybody's on the same page as to what children need in this day and age. And I think many of the parents are fearful of the school because they don't understand what goes on. Nothing is broken down for them to understand and lead them where they need to go."

Whatever the underlying reason, Hill says few parents even bother to show up. "The PTO at Faulk consisted of maybe three parents out of the entire school. We had a meeting on facilities a short time ago (at Plantation) and there were 40 or 50 people who attended, but that was for three districts. I don't think that's the involvement they (officials) wanted to see."

"When you have a neighborhood school, you can affect what happens to the kids on the campus, but you can also reach out to the neighborhood surrounding that school," claims Davis. "The leadership has to originate with the principal on that campus who has to concern himself with what's going on at the campus but also with what's going on where the children live. They are both factors in the ability of that school to educate poor children. Neighborhood schools, we find, are the best answers to that problem."

Greg Davis

According to the new book Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago and profiled by The New York Times, there are five factors correlated with school success:

"N.P. Moss in the past 10 years has had five different principals," says Davis. "It's been a very unstable situation and that's not the fault of the kids or the community.

"Absolutely 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette is necessary. In our situation in Louisiana, we have the second-highest poverty rate in the country. A lot of those children in poverty in South Louisiana and Acadiana are African-American. Many of those are born in single-parent homes and there's a need for an organization like this in order to reach out to this segment of our population to provide some mentoring and role modeling and to try and impact the institutions that touch these children, and one of the key institutions is that of public education."

The group and others like it may get an assist from the Obama administration, which proposed earlier this month to eliminate No Child Left Behind, the pass-fail measure that for 15 years had anchored the school accountability system, and replace it with one that would reward educators who prepare students for college and careers. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, told The Washington Post, "What that says is, Let's focus on the student and not some arbitrary test-score as if you could reduce a student to a test score. You can't."

Schools, including those in Lafayette Parish, have certainly tried and there has long been a concern that administrators throughout the country are more concerned with test scores than preparation for advancement.

"Test scores, that's the only focus," contends Hill, one of the few teachers willing to speak out on the subject. "Unfortunately, it's not about how we can get elementary children prepared best for middle school because there's no collaboration between what the administrations really need and what the teachers really need.

"The focus is so much on test scores that the main concerns are, what can we do to push these scores higher, or if we eliminate recesses, can we get them to learn more?"

But even if Congress approves, it's uncertain whether an overhaul of the system can be completed before this year's midterm elections. Meanwhile, 100 Black Men will continue its partnership with the stakeholders council, much as the Chamber of Commerce did with the LPSS almost 10 years ago in a largely unsuccessful attempt to raise scores.

"Just because it didn't work doesn't mean you stop," says Jackson, who moved to Lafayette four years ago. "Why should we try it again? We have no other choice because the alternative is to give up on our kids and none of us want to do that."