By Dr. Andre M. Perry
In an era of school takeover, the response of Xavier University Preparatory School’s closing reminds us why we still need our historically black institutions. Education should strive to form literate, cultural communities that realize self-reliance. This is true in general, but this is particularly true when educating the descendants of the formerly enslaved. Xavier Prep, St. Mary’s, St. Augustine High School, Dillard and Xavier Universities as well as SUNO remain some of the few places that promulgate the black middle class in both word and in deed.
Public school reformers should pay particular attention to the Xavier Prep legacy. The current charter school movement shares features with the beginnings of historically black institutions or HBIs. The race and class of charter school backers closely resemble the founders of HBIs. Most HBIs were founded by white industrialists and religious orders that saw education as vital means towards self-sufficiency. Certainly, motivations of former abolitionists turned education reformers differed starkly from the industrialists. Religiously based civil rights activists’ desire for racial equality contrasted a business class’ openness in maintaining a racial hierarchy in an era of reconstruction.
However, clear goals emerged as these schools developed. Education clearly became an incubator for literacy, employment, citizenship and activism. The local school and university became the educational map, economic development plan, political stage and protector for the black community.
Black institutions were the original Teach for America in this regard. They helped the best and brightest get a foothold in their professional careers while simultaneously developing future talent. The key difference however is that black professors and teachers anchored themselves in the communities they served. In addition, HBIs celebrate, debate and defined blackness.
As a consequence, successful black schools are more home-like than school-like. But let’s be clear, HBIs do the job of educating. To this day, black institutions embrace and enrich culture while producing some of the smartest minds in the country.
HBIs hire faculty of color, exhibit high levels of teacher/student interaction, have an institutional practice of working with low-income students and are committed to embracing and addressing cultural factors that impact student success. Although representing a small percentage of the overall number of educational institutions, disproportionately higher rates of blacks with graduate degrees come from HBIs.
In a multicultural, post-Katrina context, the degree to which schools and communities farm local talent towards the faculty, teacher and leader ranks provides a measure of self-reliance. We should discourage paternalistic brands of education that hire teachers and faculty who will not anchor themselves in the communities they serve.
I hope the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Catholic order that owns Xavier Prep, completes the legacy and find ways to transfer ownership to alums. I promote public schooling, but I live in community that needs Xavier Prep.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.