This fall, Rahsaan Ison got his own special graduation ceremony. After his New Orleans high school said he would never graduate, Rahsaan received his diploma—not from his school principal but from rapper and record producer David Banner.
Banner is a public education advocate, and was in New Orleans to give the keynote for the National Week of Action Against School Pushout put on by the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Knowing Rahsaan was a fan of his work, we reached out to see if the producer would be interested in taking part in the graduation ceremony, to be held at the National Week of Action event.
After learning Rahsaan’s story, Banner happily volunteered for the job. Local youth advocacy group Black Man Rising performed a poem. The makeshift ceremony was full of joy—but it should have never been necessary.
New Orleans schools often fail to adequately serve their students. Last month, their state ratings dropped for the third year in a row. Overall, Orleans Parish schools slipped from a “B” to a “C” rating in 2017—with 29 of 74 schools earning either a “D” or an “F.” The push to privatize education in the city following Hurricane Katrina has created an entire system of schools that don’t have to answer to their communities—especially vulnerable students of color like Rahsaan and their families.
As Rahsaan’s designated student advocate, I had witnessed the long struggle up leading up to his graduation.
In ninth grade, he had been forced to withdraw from school (or be expelled) for crossing train tracks near campus—which at the time he did not know was against school rules—in order to not be late for class. His family was homeless then, and he had never previously walked to school from that direction. Rahsaan was made to re-audition to get back into his high school, the New Orleans Center for the Performing Arts, and to repeat classes for which he’d already received “A” grades. Struggling with anxiety and trauma, he was put on a specialized learning plan, pulled out of regular classes, and placed in a small room with one other student. He struggled to complete 622 assignments in a two week window, with the understanding that the school would grant him a diploma if he did.
At the last minute, the school went back on that agreement and refused to let him graduate, or even attend the ceremony to cheer on his classmates. So, I joined a small group of family and friends to hold a protest across the street. Some of Rahsaan’s classmates left the ceremony to join him. They held each other as they cried and chanted in protest.
Because Rahsaan stood on the sidewalk during the protest, the school called in seven cars and SUVs full of state troopers. While his friends walked in their caps and gowns across the stage that night, Rahsaan was escorted away from the campus by officers. He got to watch them manhandle his mother, too.
I heard Rahsaan tell his mother that the whole thing didn’t matter. I heard him tell his friends it didn’t matter. I even heard him say it didn’t matter when the school principal told Rahsaan that he would never be a success because of who he was.
But the moment David Banner presented him his diploma, Rahsaan cried. They were tears of gratitude, but also his way of finally acknowledging his pain. Rahsaan’s whole family got to celebrate him. I watched Rahsaan smile, and with shaking hands attempt to shake David Banner’s hand as he accepted his diploma. All he had worked for over the last twelve years was finally realized. It meant so much to Rahsaan, his family, and to our entire community.
As a family advocate in the New Orleans school system I can tell you it is not easy to break a black family. It’s the most amazing thing to watch, how, after being broken and laying in a puddle of tears, a family will pick itself up, not quite steady but standing tall, and refuse to accept defeat.
Rahsaan is determined to help other young people too, working closely with the Dignity in Schools Campaign and in 2014 receiving the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Yes, this is the same young man a privately-run New Orleans school said wasn’t fit to graduate.
We’ve seen so much abuse heaped upon our already traumatized children—many of whom were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and are still recovering—by a school system that has been almost totally overtaken by private interests. They’ve been made to feel like strangers in their own communities, and to suffer a loss of stability as teachers cycle in and out, schools change names, and new privately-operated schools and buildings crop up every year. All with the total and complete loss of parent and student voice in any decision-making capacity.
Instead of being met with compassion, many of our children are met with “zero tolerance” policies implemented without understanding of their cultures and of their blackness itself. Instead, these students hear a favorite refrain of the education reform crowd: “no excuses.”
Despite New Orleans schools’ terrible 2017 ratings, and the lawsuits and complaints around their failure to meet federal special education and civil rights standards, those in charge stay in charge. Their power comes at the expense of our children and families, specifically the poor black and brown people in our city.
I thank David Banner and Black Man Rising for stepping up when the system failed Rahsaan. There are other graduations we need to facilitate, too. We must not only give these young men and women the diplomas they deserve but also transform their schools into ones the children of our communities deserve.
Ashana Bigard is a life-long resident of New Orleans, mother of three, social justice organizer, and advocate for children and families in Louisiana with the Education Justice Project of New Orleans and the United Students of New Orleans.