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Lusher charter school may have a new name, but advocates still want culture change

Sophia Germer
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Protesters march from Lusher Charter's elementary school campus to its high school campus to decry racial bias and discrimination within the Lusher community on July 4, 2020.

Lusher Charter School has a new name, The Willow School, but it's not official yet.

The name change is set to take effect on July 1, 2022, which means this year’s seniors will be the last to graduate under the name “Lusher,” according to the school’s spokesperson Heather Harper.

The school’s current namesake, former state superintendent of education Robert Mills Lusher, was a Confederate tax collector and avowed White supremacist who refused to work in public education during Reconstruction.

It wasn’t until the start of the 2021-22 school year that Lusher’s board agreed to a name change. The new name, which was selected late last month, honors the school’s first campus that opened on Willow Street in 1917.

Throughout the current renaming campaign, students frequently mentioned the importance of changing the name quickly.

“When I graduate, I do not want Lusher on my certificate,” said senior Abigail Bix back in November. “I just want to graduate with a name that I can be proud of.”

Harper said while students’ state-issued diplomas must include the school’s legal name, the school also plans to distribute its own diplomas and will let families decide whether they read “Lusher Charter School” or “LCS.”

Nia Talbott graduated from Lusher in 2021 and helped start the current renaming effort the summer before her senior year.

She thinks the name Willow will help unify the community, but said the board’s decision ultimately left her numb.

“You would think I would be celebrating and so happy, but I literally felt nothing,” she said.

She never imagined it would take this long.

“This could have happened two years ago,” she said. “This was such an easy thing that they finally came around to.”

For decades, students, staff and outside activists have periodically asked the school to change its name without success.

But Talbott’s campaign was different. It followed national and local protests for racial justice following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that in turn kicked off New Orleans’ own street and school facility renaming efforts.

Both of Lusher’s campuses were renamed, but actual school names, like Lusher, were allowed to stay, since they’re determined by individual charter operators, not the district.

Talbott, who is Black, said changing the name Lusher is only the first step to addressing deeper concerns around diversity and equity at one of the city’s most sought after and selective charter schools.

‘Change the name, change the culture’

From the beginning, students at Lusher were clear that their fight to change the school’s name had a second part too.

“Change the name, change the culture,” they cried on July 4, 2020 during a mile-long march between the charter’s elementary and high schools.

Sophia Germer
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Lusher student Nia Talbott speaks before protesters march to bring awareness to racial biases and discrimination within the school community on July 4, 2020.

Lusher’s student body is majority white in a public school district that is nearly 90% Black.

In 2021, Lusher’s then high school principal wrote a 12-page letter that accused the charter’s CEO Kathy Reidlinger of undermining efforts to heal racial tensions at the school.

The allegations were "fully investigated by an independent firm and found not to merit any action by the school," Harper said in a statement in January.

Black enrollment at the school has dropped steadily over the last decade. Students of color have reported experiencing race-based discrimination, tokenization and microaggressions. Some have shared their experiences publicly, while others have shared theirs anonymously through the Instagram account Pride of Lusher.

Pride of Lusher’s demands have always gone beyond selecting a new name and include annual mandatory anti-racist trainings for teachers and alumni representation on the charter’s school board.

Long-time Lusher teacher Jerome White said he’s trying to keep the conversation going and make clear that the renaming issue “came about due to other issues.”

“I think some people have the perspective that some of us troublemakers just came along and disrupted things, and that’s what caused the harm,” White said. “But no, we've been screaming for years that we are feeling the harm of some aspects of this school that we love.”

White, who is Black, said his main concern is the racial diversity of Lusher’s student body.

When he started at the school in the early 2000s, he said the student body was roughly 40% Black. Today, that number is closer to 20%.

“What's been so frustrating to me over recent years is that I've been bringing this up increasingly louder and louder,” White said. “It’s [an issue] where even if we all agreed it needs to be fixed, it’s going to take years and years to fix it.”

In a statement, Harper, the school’s spokesperson, said Lusher’s administration “recognizes the need to constantly review and strive for a diverse staff and student community” and added that “a process is underway to review Lusher’s policies” on diversity and inclusion, but did not explain further what that process will look like.

The search for Lusher’s next CEO

In addition to a new name, Lusher is also looking for a new CEO. Riedlinger stepped down as CEO in January and is set to retire at the end of the school year.

Talbott and White said hiring new leadership, ideally from outside the school’s current administration, could help Lusher, soon Willow, talk more candidly about its shortcomings and ultimately move in the right direction.

More importantly though, both acknowledged the need for the community to remain engaged and keep pushing for improvements.

Talbott said she’s worried a successful name change could mean the end of the conversation if people don’t fight to keep the conversation going.

“One of my biggest fears after my class left was that the energy, the enthusiasm, would die down because it's exhausting,” she said.

Talbott said she’s thankful for White and other teachers who helped fight for a name change and plan to keep fighting for other changes alongside their students.

White said he’s just as thankful for her activism.

“I hope someday Nia feels a greater sense of pride in [her] accomplishment,” he said.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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