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Lusher school won't rename itself after different Lusher; board extends new name search

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.

A decades-long fight to change the name of one of New Orleans most prominent charter schools dragged on Thursday night through nearly four hours of public debate and discussion.

Lusher Charter School’s board, Advocates for Arts-Based Education, voted 4-2 to not rename the program after a different Lusher and ultimately decided to extend its renaming process.

Board members Rachel Wisdom, Alysia Loshbaugh, Kiki Huston and George Wilson voted in favor of rejecting the name and Gary Solomon and Brenda Bourne voted against.

The board had originally planned to select a new name after its self appointed study group narrowed its short list down to three possible options: Lusher Charter School, in honor of Jeanne Marie Lusher, New Orleans Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities and Willow Charter School for Diversity, Arts and Sciences.

Lusher was formally rejected by the board after dozens of parents, teachers and students argued the school needed to make a clean break from the name in order to fully erase its connection to its namesake Robert Mills Lusher, an avowed white supremacist and Confederate tax collector.

Board president George Wilson ultimately decided to form a new study group to carry out the extended renaming process after a resolution in favor of naming the program Willow Charter School was withdrawn due to lack of enthusiasm.

The new group consists of board members Rachel Wisdom and Alysia Loshbaugh and three members of its administration, Charmaine Davis, Charlene Hebert and Sheila Nelson.

“I feel like a lot of time was wasted,” said Lusher parent Ericka A. Garnett Windon after Thursday’s board meeting ended. “The conversation that happened tonight should have happened a long time ago.”

In late September, the board unanimously voted to rename the program, so many community members were surprised when a short-list of 11 possible names released earlier this month contained two Lusher options: 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.

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 lawyer James Brown told New Orleans Public Radio in an interview Wednesday that "there were many, many responses" in favor of retaining Lusher in the new name and just as many against.

But according to a public records request filed by Windon on behalf of Lusher’s parent organization Families for Change, that wasn’t the case. Of the nearly 600 responses the board received, more than 80% suggested names that did not include Lusher.

Respondents suggested a variety of names, including a number of native New Orleans musicians and educators. But the name suggested the most was Esther Alexis, a former Lusher teacher who died in 2017.

The board’s new study group is tasked with hiring an outside consultant that can engage with the community to come up with a new list of possible names to then be brought before the board. Wilson, the board’s president, said the process could take four months.

At the end of the day, the suggestions will be non-binding and the board is still free to pick any name.

This approach could mirror what’s already being carried out at Benjamin Franklin High School, a school who some say should be renamed because the founding father owned slaves, but later denounced slavery. In an email, head of school Patrick Widhalm said its board has already selected a consultant, and stakeholder meetings and surveys will both be conducted in early 2022 to decide whether to change the program's name.

Many parents, students and teachers spoke Thursday night about what they see as a damaging disconnect between the school's leadership and its community. Several teachers and parents said they’ve been afraid to engage with the school renaming process because it's been so contentious.

Third grade teacher Brittney Dayeh said the process so far has been a missed opportunity to allow students to participate and learn about democratic processes.

“I’ve been afraid to do that in my classes,” Dayeh said. “The name change topic doesn’t feel like a safe topic to me.”

Tensions over meaningful diversity and inclusion efforts at the school, or what some see as a lack thereof, also boiled over at Thursday’s meeting, and words like “zealot” and “racist” were used multiple times to describe people on opposite sides of the renaming issue.

“The fact that it took so much to get here is just indicative of some of the deeper issues around the culture and the lack of community inclusion in the building,” Windon said.

Robert Mills was dropped from Lusher’s name when it became a magnet school in 1976. Since then the question of whether that change was enough has been one of periodic debate.

Board member Kiki Huston said for a long time she didn’t know anything about Robert Mills Lusher and didn’t associate the school's name with him. Instead the school, to her, stood for academic excellence. She said things are different now, and at this point it has to go.

“Nowadays I feel like the name is too linked to him, and there are too many community members feeling pain,” Huston said.

While the name Jeanne Marie Lusher was formally rejected at Thursday’s board meeting, the name Lusher in its entirety was not. The board retains full naming rights and can still include Lusher in a future program name if it wishes.

For now, Lusher’s renaming process has no set timeline, but the next step is for its new study group to select a consultant. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 9 and subsequent meetings will be held on Jan. 20 and Feb. 17.

Lusher senior Abigail Bix said she hopes the school changes its name before the Class of 2022 graduates.

“When I graduate I do not want Lusher on my certificate,” she said. “I just want to graduate with a name that I can be proud of.”

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

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