The End of The Lens’ important Charter School Reporting Corps (Columbia Journalism Review. June 2014.)

Before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans education reporters covered one big, famously dysfunctional public school board. As the city now becomes the first in the country to shift from a public school system to a mostly charter—albeit public charter—school system, local news organizations struggle with how to cover almost 50 boards presiding over just under 70 schools.

Months after the New Orleans news site The Lens debuted in early 2010, its editor in chief, Steve Beatty, created a team of freelancers called the Charter School Reporting Corps to cover the dozens of new school boards. I joined that crew of around 15 reporters, mostly newbies, who were paid $50 a pop to cover each and every monthly board meeting.

“We’ve had about 35 people move in and out of the Charter School Reporting Corps over the last three years,” says Beatty, a Times-Picayune and Atlanta Journal-Constitution alumnus. “We used some students as freelancers, and some of the coverage was a little uneven. But we were getting to about 93 percent of the meetings.”

But now, three years after its debut, the CSRC is being put on hiatus, a reflection of larger financial woes at what is locally considered the best of the many news sites created to cover tumultuous, post-Katrina New Orleans. Those watching to see how The Lens adjusts to these shortfalls fear charter school coverage in the city will suffer.

In the years right after the flood, the Picayune was contracting, and The New Orleans Advocate wasn’t around yet. Even today, as the national spotlight shines on New Orleans’ charter school movement, most local news outlets only jump on bigger charter school stories. The CSRC, on the other hand, reported every detail.

“[The CSRC] kept track of the issues that were facing each school’s governance, whether that meant them just adding a new school bus route, or whether they follow the fresh food guidelines instead of using canned peas,” says Beatty. “Lots of stuff that might not interest the average general reader outside of that school community, but it helped parents know that they were welcome at meetings, that it was okay to walk in.”

The CSRC was also invaluable in terms of teaching all these new school boards the laws, and what was expected from them in terms of transparency. Though public charters make their own rules to some extent, they are partly funded by the federal government, and so they must abide by open meetings laws.

“A lot of the boards operated in a kind of clubby way and didn’t follow all the open-meetings requirements, a simple but important thing that we latched onto early on,” says Mark Moseley, who coordinated the CSRC on and off for the last three years. “We were often the only members of the public represented at the meetings. And there was some noticeable progress in that area: A lot of boards became a lot more in tune with open meetings requirements. There was a sea change in compliance. We were the reason for that.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of the piece at Columbia Journalism Review.

Or CLICK HERE to check out the work of The Lens’ CSRC.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prince Fans Wild With Excitement Over His Return To Essence Fest (Radio piece for WWNO/NPR. June 2014)

Dearly beloved, we will gather at Essence Music Festival on July 4th to get down with this man named Prince. Electric word “Prince” — it means “genius” and that’s a mighty big title, but I’m here to tell you: nothing compares to The Purple One.

“I don’t have a favorite era. It’s like saying ‘Which is your favorite child.’ Different eras, different songs fit different parts of your life, so I can’t say I have a favorite.”

That’s Lisa Heisser, a true Prince superfan.

“I like the song ‘Do Me Baby’ because it’s the first one I ever heard, as a young girl, 15, on the radio — and I was shocked, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ And then I thought, ‘Who is that? I’ve got to hear more.’”

Lisa’s husband Glenn Heisser totally agrees: “I was there from Soft And Wet in 1978,” he says. “I heard that song and said it was awesome. Back then he was real freaky and real sexual and he’s changed — and I’ve changed! We kinda grew up together, and that’s why I love him so much.”

Prince may be the last real rock star — at least the last who knows the meaning of mystique. He’s been unfortunately successful at scrubbing his music almost entirely off of YouTube. For many years you couldn’t even get his music on iTunes. That’s only just about to change. Around the same time as the 2014 Essence Festival, Prince will finally release a digitally remastered deluxe edition of the Purple Rain soundtrack, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer.            CLICK HERE to read the rest.

Or click >><< 2 hear the audio, which features about 6 Prince songs!

Or check out Prince’s new all-girl band playing “She’s Always In My Hair”: 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Cajun & Zydeco Sounds (Acadiana Living/MyNewOrleans.com. June 2014)

Today’s young Cajun and zydeco musicians face a choice: adhere strictly to the traditions and represent the cultures, or expand upon Acadiana music and hope listeners embrace it instead of being offended.

The website of the otherwise provincial Cajun band Teechaoui Social Club promises “No New Orleans” in their sound. When asked to clarify, Teechaoui bassist Alan LaFleur responds simply, “Bourbon Street,” before clarifying his desire to make sure future generations hear authentic Cajun music music: “In New Orleans, John Fishburn plays a good version of Cajun music, but everyone else is stuck on Bourbon Street – which isn’t bad but it’s a long ways removed from Cajun culture.”
Teechaoui (a word meaning ‘little raccoon’), on the other hand, plays, “Just what you’d hear at my grandpa’s house,” LaFleur promises.

After a lifetime playing rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly and surf (he’s led the band the Gin-n-Tonics since 1996), LaFleur moved home to Lafayette after 9/11 and finally started playing Cajun music. He spent eight years in the Lost Bayou Ramblers, infusing Cajun music with a modern sound.

His Teechaoui Social Club started fairly recently on a porch during a community boucherie. “I live in this house from the 1820s,” explains LaFleur. “And we have a boucherie there. At a boucherie you can’t come and watch; you come and learn how to do something. You make boudin; you learn by doing, not by watching.
We get about 80 people every time with 20 people playing music for about 18 hours of that day. That’s where I met my band. None of these guys are professionals except for me.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at MyNewOrleans.com

Or stare at this photo of Feufollet by David Simpson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Neighborhood bar believes ‘gentrification’ is trying to shut it down (Louisiana Weekly. June 2014).

The Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward has in the last several years become coveted high-ground real estate. As a result, the traditionally Black area has drawn a diverse array of new neighbors. And with such diversity comes often drastically different ideals, opinions, and methods of handling conflict within the community.

One center of Holy Cross’ growing pains has been Mercedes Place Bar, owned for roughly 25 years by 74-year-old Mercedes Gibson. At first located in Central City on Baronne and Clio, Gibson later moved Mercedes Place to 5200 Burgundy in the Lower Nine, nearer to her home of 30 years.

Mercedes Gibson rebuilt what Katrina destroyed. Today her daughter Deborah Wilson—raised in the Lower Nine but now living in Woodmere—describes her mother’s bar as a respite for senior citizens, a mellow place she says opens early and closes around 9 p.m. each night.

Mercedes Place has, however, especially recently, been directly blamed for feeding into the area’s famously abundant drugs and crime. Wilson, speaking for her elderly mother, claims her family has never heard any direct complaints about the bar; complaints went directly to the city via parties that choose to remain anonymous.

“New neighbors have come in with their own game plan, and things they want to change,” claims Wilson, who says she knows everyone around the bar, except a few of the new renters and other sudden neighbors. “The neighborhood could use some changes but… why you gonna target an original neighborhood business that came back after Katrina”

In truth though, the story is more complex.

On Nov 29, 2011, a shooting occurred at Mercedes Place. Then in March of 2012, drug dealers reportedly ran into Mercedes Place to escape police and ditch contraband. Another aggravated battery report was filed against the bar on April 7, 2012. CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at Louisiana Weekly…

Or watch this video of the trial: 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Story Behind Cajun Mardi Gras Masks (Acadiana Living. Dec. 2014).

Georgie Manuel

Georgie Manuel

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROMERO & ROMERO PHOTOGRAPHY

Wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated, the mask is key. Behind the best masks, they can’t tell whether you are laughing or crying. They can’t tell how absolutely drunk you are. The mask helps erase consequence. “Riders want folks to say, ‘Well, I didn’t see you on Mardi Gras!,’” claims Iota Louisiana mask-maker Jackie Miller. “Then they can say, ‘Oh, yes, you did; you just didn’t recognize me.’”

In South Louisiana, myriad small communities celebrate French-inspired Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday Runs through their towns. On horseback, flatbed trucks and ATVs, hordes of colorfully garbed riders blaze through the middle of big, Cajun crowds while singing, shouting and begging for nickels, trinkets and ingredients for a gumbo meal to be shared by the community later that night. The runs’ overlords (the capitaines) wear traditional wild, flashy robes and pointed hats called capuchin, while barking instructions to their foolish riders. The capitaines leave their faces exposed to let everyone know who is in charge. The drunken, debauched riders, however, hide their human identities behind various parish-specific masks made and molded out of wire mesh.

The wire masks of Church Point, for instance, are known to be plain, featuring regular human noses. Their capuchin are not as tall. Basile’s masks have no nose, just simple, colorful stylized features painted directly onto the screen.

Unlike other mask-makers, Lou Trahan covers her masks with colored felt, yarn, buttons, lace and other knickknacks. For 20 years, Trahan has been one of two people making traditional wire masks for the Egan community southwest-ish of Iota, between Crowley and Jennings. Egan happily stands in the shadow of the much larger Tee Mamou parade just to the west. She began making masks for her husband and two boys to wear while running with Mermentau. Of course, admiring friends soon wanted their own masks, which Trahan obligingly made. CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece, which you should do, because check out this photo (below)!


LOU TRAHAN

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Charter Schools Assn. seminar, ‘how to avoid employee lawsuits’ (LA Weekly. May 2014).

On May 8, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools along with the Top Shelf charter assistance organization hosted a presentation for charter school leaders and board members on how to avoid employee lawsuits, especially when terminating a charter school teacher.

While New Orleans has seemingly benefited slightly from a shift from public to charter schools, one side effect has been “union busting,” which leaves individual teachers who feel they have been wronged to fight alone against the concentrated power of charter boards and the corporations they represent. While Wednesday’s presentation was billed as a gathering “to promote healthy relationships with charter school personnel,” it often felt more like a discussion about ways in which charter boards can further deplete the individual power of teachers who feel they have been wrongfully terminated.

Unlike traditional public schools, corporate charters each make their own rules. For instance, most charter schools can fire employees at will. “We can fire anyone for any reason, with or without notice,” said attorney Michelle Craig of Adams and Reese who led the presentation, “for good reason, for no reason. It’s your business decision.”

To that end, Craig repeatedly suggested that charter board members and school staff document anything and everything, in case of future lawsuit. On the other hand, Craig also suggested that charter schools do away with the traditional “Employment Contract” entirely, because said contract can serve as documentation that might aid a teacher in winning a wrongful termination suit. “Leave out the words ‘contract’ and ‘agreement,’” advised Craig, who suggested instead a brief, ‘offer letter,’ that makes no promises and gives teachers as little information as possible.

Craig said that when firing a teacher, “Never argue or apologize.” In fact, she suggested that administrators say as little as possible: “Body language says a lot,” she said, smiling.

Craig also said that schools should not offer an appeals process to fired employees because, “if offered, everyone will use it.” Craig also reminded everyone present that when faced with any controversial situation, “You don’t have to give the state documentation. I am not suggesting you don’t. But you don’t have to.”

Craig went on to discuss what to include in the employee handbook; gave advice on schools’ application processes; talked about how to deal with teacher background checks; and described how to block any teacher fired during the year who then feels entitled to their summer pay.

While the 20 or so in attendance soaked in the info, Craig received a bit of blowback when she suggested that schools should no longer write letters of recommendation for former teachers, just in case that could later be used against the school somehow: “That’s an attorney’s route,” said Patty Glaser, CEO and founding head of school for Kenner Discover Health Sciences Academy. “I don’t agree with that.”

“Lawyers have ruined everything,” said Colin Brooks, board President of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, who sighed, adding, “This was depressing.”

Posted in MPW's published writing | Leave a comment

On 75-year-old NOLA gospel group Zion Harmonizers (The Advocate. May 2014).

New Orleans gospel group the Zion Harmonizers was founded in 1939 by Benjamin Maxon, nine years before current group president Brazella Briscoe was born in Gretna.

“Dad would play religious music when we were very little, and we heard this group the Zion Harmonizers, and an affiliated group, the Dixie Hummingbirds,” Briscoe, now 65, recalled. “My brother and I would imitate these two groups, just walk around and sing.”This year the group celebrates its 75th anniversary with a new album, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” They will perform their distinctive, faith-filled harmony on Sunday, May 4, at 1:50 p.m. at the Gospel Tent.

While working at a shipyard in 1941, Maxon met Sherman Washington, to whom he passed on his presidency. Sherman and the Harmonizers DJ’d a gospel radio hour show every Saturday on WYLD starting in 1956. “After Katrina we kinda lost touch with the radio station, which was bought out by Clear Channel,” said Briscoe. CLICK HERE to read the rest of the article at The Advocate…

Or watch this video of the Zion Harmonizers with special guest Aaron Neville: 

Washington served as the Zion Harmonizer’s president from 1941 until 2007, when he appointed tenor Briscoe. “I would go to (Washington) to for advice. He became my mentor and guided me along whenever I had a situation I didn’t understand,” recalled Briscoe. Washington passed away in 2011, but the Zion Harmonizers continue to rehearse at his house with permission from his widow.

Posted in Famous People I Have Met, MPW's published writing | Leave a comment