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After contentious renaming process, here’s why Lusher could still end up keeping its name

Lusher Charter School's middle and high school campus on Freret Street. March 7, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
Lusher Charter School's middle and high school campus on Freret Street. March 7, 2021.

Lusher Charter School could have a new name as early as Thursday after a month-and-a-half-long renaming process and decades of organizing on the part of parents, teachers and current and former students.

But the school’s board, Advocates for Arts-Based Education, could still decide to keep the name Lusher, despite voting unanimously to change the program’s name. The board is expected to make a decision later today at its November meeting.

A short list of 11 names compiled by the board’s self-appointed study group contains two options that would ultimately allow the program to maintain the name Lusher. Those two names are Lusher Charter School, in honor of Jeanne Marie Lusher, a doctor who practiced medicine in New Orleans for a few years, and Lusher Charter School of Academic Excellence, Diversity and the Arts.

Stripping the name Lusher, which honors Robert Mills Lusher, an avowed white supremacist and Confederate tax collector, is something members of the school community have been pushing for many years.

Robert Mills was dropped from the name in 1976 when it became a magnet school. While some argue that change should be enough, others believe maintaining the name Lusher perpetuates white supremacy.

“As parents of Lusher Charter School students, we are disgusted and left asking why the school leadership is clinging so tightly to a word that is forever tied to white supremacy and pain,” Clare Daniel and Ericka Garnett Windon wrote in a recent Advocate op-ed.

Jeanne Marie Lusher is not related to Robert Mills Lusher by blood or marriage, and her connection to the Crescent City is limited.

Lusher started her career in pediatric hematology at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and later received a fellowship at Tulane University. She lived in the city for just a few years and spent most of her life in Ohio and Michigan. She died in 2016 at 81.

According to rationale written by the school, which accompanied the short list when it was distributed, the two Lusher options address "community concerns about a loss of branding and the anticipated financial impact.”

Lusher is a majority white school in a public school district that is nearly 90% Black, and students of color have reported experiencing race-based discrimination, tokenization and microaggressions. Many have spoken publicly, and others have shared their experiences anonymously through the Instagram account Pride of Lusher.

The charter’s board voted in late September to pursue a name change following significant pressure from its school community, as well as the district's own decision to rename school buildings named for slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters.

As part of its own renaming process, Lusher's board formed a study group composed of two board members, Gary Solomon and Rachel Wisdom, and three members of its administration, Charmaine Davis, Charlene Hebert and Sheila Nelson. Other than two online forms, there were no additional avenues for feedback.

According to James Brown, Lusher’s lawyer, the board received more than 500 responses. Using this information and its own judgement, the study group created the short list.

The study group’s other name suggestions honor Everett J. Williams, Allen Toussaint, Ellis Marsalis and Louis Armstrong. Additional options include New Orleans Academy of Arts Sciences, and Humanities; Lions Charter School; Willow Charter School for Diversity, Arts and Sciences; and Unity School of Innovation.

The short list feedback form, which asked respondents to vote for their favorite and least favorite option, received more than 2,000 responses, according to Brown.

In an Uptown Messenger op-ed, Lusher alum Corrine Williams argues that feedback structure is problematic because respondents can't reject both Lusher options.

The way in which Lusher’s renaming process has been conducted so far has led some to question whether the board’s efforts are even genuine. When asked about this criticism, Brown said the process has been “completely above board, open and genuine in every way.”

At Thursday’s meeting, the study group will present its findings before providing three final name suggestions that may or may not already be on the short list, he said.

"It's not something where the study group in any way is supposed to just go with whatever got the most votes," Brown said. "The public was given input. That input has been filtered and considered, but ultimately, the study group has exercised its own independent thinking."

At that point, the board can call for a vote on one of the three names or any other name that they choose. Public comment will also take place.

Brown says during the public input process, "there were many, many responses" in favor of retaining Lusher in the new name, as well as many against.

"The board is going to have to make its best judgment and its best decision," he said.

Very few people have openly endorsed maintaining the Lusher name. At the board's last meeting, no one spoke in favor of retaining the name, and 11th grade student Henry Morse said, “all students want the name to be changed — it’s that simple.”

Lusher’s Thursday board meeting will be held over Zoom and starts at 5 p.m. You can access the meeting here.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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