Educator Dr. Marvin Thompson

Dr. Thompson talks about his approach to school leadership and being the subject of the OWN docu-series, Blackboard Wars.

Dr. Marvin Thompson has made a name for himself in the field of education. When he was superintendent of the Roanoke City (VA) Public Schools, his achievements included increasing the number of accredited schools by 25% and closing the No Child Left Behind achievement gap. He also served as president of an education consulting company, EmpowerED, and was principal of an elementary school in Virginia. Considered a no-nonsense leader, Thompson is now applying his turnaround experience to New Orleans' John McDonogh High School and is the subject of the new OWN docu-series on the struggling school, entitled Blackboard Wars.


Tavis: Figuring out how to turn around failing inner city schools is one of the most important challenges this country faces. I know first-hand from doing reports on education for PBS that there are no easy answers, but there are dedicated individuals who refuse to give up. One of those persons, Dr. Marvin Thompson. He’s heading a team that’s taken over a failing school in New Orleans. Their efforts to get at-risk kids back on track is the subject of a six-part documentary series airing Saturday nights on OWN. Let’s take a look.


Tavis: Woo! So why’d you sign up for this?

Dr. Marvin Thompson: Well, I didn’t know I signed up for that [laugh]. But, I guess, the answer to your question of why am I there, it’s about giving young people opportunities that they don’t have. I’ve always had a passion for education and knowing what impact it can have on our children. But in this environment, some of the things that I experienced there, we kind of anticipated, but you can’t walk away from it. You’ve got to step into the fray.

Tavis: What kind of resistance are you getting to these changes and where is that resistance coming from?

Thompson: Initially, when you look at the students, that was the initial pushback. They weren’t comfortable with the rules because I don’t think they understood where they were coming from. They saw it a little bit as control. But over time, they understood that it was about the culture of the school and shaping that.

If you ask me about the resistance now, it’s more external than internal. Most of the resistance that we have now comes from the community and there are probably a host of reasons why that happens. The charter movement in New Orleans has been expansive and, in many ways, the community feels pushed out.

A lot of the teachers who had taught there in the community and from the community are no longer teachers there. From their vantage point, a lot of outsiders are coming in to run schools for their children. So it creates some angst and a lot of animosity.

Tavis: I was in New Orleans not long ago working on a special that we’re doing for PBS that airs in March called “Education Under Arrest” and New Orleans was one of the stops on my travels around the country to put this documentary together for our network. So I spent a few days there and I heard a lot about this charter school movement in New Orleans, as you can imagine.

Thompson: Right.

Tavis: And one of the rubs against charter schools in New Orleans and everywhere else, for that matter, is that they get to pick and choose who they want to let in. And because they get to pick and choose, they don’t have the same burden that any other public school has to take whoever shows up.

Thompson: Right.

Tavis: And you can kick out who you want to kick out.

Thompson: Right [laugh].

Tavis: So you can whittle this thing down and weed out. How do you respond to that kind of allegation about the fact that charter schools can be, you know, picky and choosy?

Thompson: I think that’s a component that does exist in the charter school movement. You know, every school has its own concept, but I can speak to John McDonogh in this context. We don’t have a draft. You know, we take what lands on our field, so much so that we’ve even broadened the range of what we are able and trying to build ourselves to support. We take on a large number of over-age students.

I had a young man who started my school year and he disappeared on us in mid-October. He showed up yesterday and I wanted to know where he was and he said he’d been in jail. I had no idea because their lives outside the school are impacted in ways we can’t imagine.

This is a young man who doesn’t need to be pushed away. He needs to be brought in. He’s a 19-year-old who has enough credits to, I think, be a junior. So the horizon for graduation’s still in front of him. I’d be remiss to push him out that door. This may be the only place he feels comfortable coming to and we have the resources to do it.

So, yes, in some cases, there are probably charter schools out here who have caveats to attendance and admission and even dismissal. At our school, admission is open. Dismissal? I think the criteria is, if you violate what we’re trying to do and disrupt it consistently without any effort to change, you have to go.

Tavis: This scene that we saw a moment ago that was just arresting to see these kids going at it that way inside the school raised for me the thought of what I saw time and time again last year shooting the special that we’re airing here shortly. This particular piece we’re working on is really about the criminalization of kids. I know you know this well.

So this special is called “Education Under Arrest,” but we’re talking specifically about criminalization of kids. So back in the day when you and I were in school, we’d get into a fight, you know, I’ll meet you in the parking lot after school.

Thompson: Right, exactly.

Tavis: So we get into a fight. The fight is what it is or, you know, we go on about our business. But the stuff that we were sent to the principal’s office for, in a worst case scenario, go to the principal’s office, that very stuff nowadays gets you a criminal record.

Thompson: Absolutely.

Tavis: And once these kids get a criminal record…

Thompson: They’re in the system.

Tavis: They’re in the system. So I know it’s one thing for me to do a special about this. It’s another thing for you to live this and have to navigate every day. Talk to me about the criminalization of our kids.

Thompson: You bring up an interesting point that I think is often overlooked in the concept of discipline with kids. You know, my belief is the event that you’re dealing with in front of you is a symptom. And when you’re dealing with our young people and this type of community with the troubles that they have, they’re bringing to you a table, an absence of skills, so that those to me are opportunities when they’re sitting in front of me to educate.

You know, discipline should be corrective. It should not be punishment. And I should not be putting – these are young people, and I think you just said it, with their full lives ahead of them. It’s not my responsibility to label them. It’s my responsibility to provide corrective action so that they understand that…

Tavis: They’re already labeled.

Thompson: They’re already labeled.

Tavis: Let’s take the labels off.

Thompson: Exactly, yeah. They’re already labeled. Good point. These young people need some counseling. We talk about role models. Well, role models are not fixtures. They’re people who provide something that changes or impacts your life. And if it’s nothing more than some advice and taking the time, and it’s time-consuming. It is, but I said earlier, it’s about saving lives.

We criminalize our kids in our schools when everything is about a consequence and that consequence creates a paper trail that leads to something else. Oftentimes in court cases, someone always pulls back and says what’s their school record like? Schools should not be the first stage towards that journey.

Tavis: You used the word earlier, the word culture. And when you said it, I think I know what you meant, but my mind admittedly was trying to process, does he mean the culture inside the school or the culture in which they are raised and have to navigate every day? Obviously, it could mean either.

But talk to me about the culture, the broader societal culture, that you’re up against that produces these kids and how, when they get to you, you have to create a culture inside of your school which is oftentimes diametrically opposed. Your culture is diametrically opposed to the culture from which they come. Does that make sense?

Thompson: It does. I had a colleague, a mentor of mine, tell me a long time ago once when I was an assistant principal and I was complaining about the kids in our school and how much I was having to deal with. He looked at me and I think he got tired of me whining. And he said, “Marvin, do you think the parents keep the good ones at home? They send us the best they have.” [laugh]. They send us the best they have, and it stuck with me.

I went, yeah, you’re right. The good ones are sitting at home and they say all the bad ones go to school. They don’t want them there either, right? Good or bad. That was when I began to understand that, if the parents are sending us the best that they have, then what’s the best that they are? They’ve given their best.

This isn’t a position of judging parents and judging what they’ve given, but understanding what they’re capable of giving. Most often, the kids that we’re looking at are products of the same community that produced the previous generation. And I think there’s a misnomer about generations when it comes to education.

Generations are not Marvin and Tavis and our demographics compared to someone in their 20s like my children and then, obviously, these younger people. A generation in education is less than eight years. It’s less than eight years, so it’s every eight years when you start looking at what impact it had on a community. And it’s not the longevity of K through 12, right? It’s less than that.

Going into a school trying to change it is a constant culture-building. You’re having to absorb it not – to me, I never try to judge the existing, the external culture. Not my place, not my job. I’m not the mayor. I’m not a politician, so I stay away from that.

I understand it, I don’t project outward, but I change what’s inside and, really, that’s what schools are supposed to do. If I can build a stronger culture with our young people understanding their own communities and how they impact their communities positively, I now have an opportunity to strengthen the community and change that cycle of lesser quality education.

Tavis: I hear you. You are not the mayor, you are not the police chief, you’re not the pastor, and yet you do have to deal with these best of kids that are being sent to you. That’s true in any city, but it is particularly and especially difficult to pull that off in a city like New Orleans that had preexisting conditions, shall we say, before Katrina and it has not gotten better since Katrina.

So I was struck when I saw that OWN was doing this series, “Blackboard Wars,” and that it was based specifically at your school in New Orleans. That’s a long way of asking how much more difficult is it for you to navigate this journey at this school in New Orleans post-Katrina?

Thompson: Wow. I didn’t know much about New Orleans other than a tourist view, a vision of New Orleans prior to this. When I arrived, I got an eye-opening – I mean, it was an eye opener to me. My dad was a Marine. We lived all over the country, sometimes in civilian communities, sometimes on bases. But I think I’ve seen enough or thought I had seen enough and heard enough. These young people and the city itself have yet to, one, recover from Katrina fully.

But I think, as you said, there’s some preexisting conditions. I find in my young people a very narrow vision, the inability to project long-term outside of that world. In the world of school, that’s the biggest shock to me is that they can’t project to me beyond their immediacy. And when I talk to them about best case scenarios, the things they present to me are things that the rest of us or most of us take for granted.

I asked a young man at some point what did he think it was going to take for him to have his own apartment and have a car. He tells me half a million dollars. This is an 18-year-old young man who has no concept of the monetary value of things and what, in the next step, in the next couple of years, what world he’s going to be stepping into.

The gap between the realities of that dynamic and his perceptions can cost him to do several different things. If he walks out in the world thinking he needs a half million dollars to do something, is that a driver to some of his actions? So there’s so many different questions that have come to me in new awakenings about where this larger community is in terms of school and learning.

Tavis: What to your mind or to your experience is primarily responsible for those fears, for those dreams, those aspirations being in their minds at least already foreclosed on?

Thompson: I don’t think they hear hope anywhere. I don’t think, not only do they not hear hope, these young people are loved. The community loves them. As much as the crime and hurt that happens in the community, much of it’s done by themselves to each other. It’s not adults hurting these kids.

So there is love there, but one of the things – and I said this last week – we in tough communities and poor communities use that love to keep us uplifted, but that love sometimes leads to failure because it doesn’t mean and move to that village mentality of pushing us forward.

And if no one’s pushing you forward, no one’s looking forward, and I don’t hear a lot of that. I don’t hear a lot of this is where I want you to go and this is what you can do. There’s not a lot of possibilities thrown at them and I think that’s something that’s absent in their daily dialogue.

Tavis: I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans over the years and this is something I have personally never figured out. I suspect that saying this on national TV and being seen in New Orleans, I’ll probably get a ton of email about this [laugh] which I welcome.

Of all the American cities that I’ve traveled to in the course of my life and career, I’ve never gone to a city that is more familial than New Orleans. You know where I’m going with this.

Thompson: I do, I do.

Tavis: Everybody in New Orleans knows everybody else.

Thompson: Everybody else.

Tavis: They’re all related to everybody. That’s my cousin, that’s my uncle [laugh]. That’s the kind of city it is.

Thompson: It’s great, though.

Tavis: That’s what I’m saying. I love that. It’s a walking city, it’s a family city, everybody hangs out. I mean, literally everybody in New Orleans like knows everybody. Again, half of them are related to each other.

Thompson: Right.

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this.

Thompson: I do, I do.

Tavis: How could you have an environment that is that familial and have so many of these problems?

Thompson: You know, it’s a paradox and it’s one that I have yet to come to an understanding of either.

Tavis: So I ain’t the only one then [laugh]?

Thompson: You’re not the only one. You described it as accurate – as many times as my family has moved as a military brat, I have never been anywhere where people were so inviting and so open. I made friends on the first days I’m there as if I’d known them for 20 years.

Tavis: It’s a warm, loving city. It really is.

Thompson: Absolutely. So this is a paradox, Tavis, that, when you find the answer, please call me ’cause I would love to know.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you find then are – what are your greatest challenges and I mean on a day-to-day basis? On a day-to-day basis, what are your greatest challenges, what are your greatest obstacles, to being able to turn this school around?

Thompson: Well, I think it’s going in stages. Initially, it was really what you saw there, building connections with kids, not just with myself, but with my teachers, getting kids to trust my teachers, my teachers to trust my kids. We have grown tremendously. I mean, as the show airs, we’re four months beyond that airing and it’s a totally different environment. That hurdle? We’re probably mid-air over that one and it looks like, as I’m looking back, that back leg’s going to cross that one too.

Our next hurdle for us to building stronger systems. We’ve spent so much energy and time and effort on this part and it was important. I wouldn’t change anything at all, but I do know this. This next opportunity for us is probably the most critical juncture which is connecting our students with learning and I’m seeing signs of that.

Our attendance is, from last year to this year, more than double. Last year, the average was about 34% daily attendance. We’re averaging between 70 and 80% every day, so we’re getting them to come to school. The first beginning of the year, they were talking about their grades in terms of letter grades.

Now we’re in the second semester and they’re talking about their grade point averages and asking questions about ACT scores and what can I do help them. Where’s the after school program and can we do that? I started the after school and they didn’t want to come when I started the school. They didn’t see the relevance. Here we are in January and February and they’re going, “I need some help.”

So our next journey for me is now pulling the teachers in and giving them a greater voice by setting up some committees to tackle some of these big challenges, but also connecting our kids to learning beyond things that they’ve seen before, not just grades. It’s about the daily questioning and the daily activities that occur in the classroom and having them take a greater role in their learning.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised the issue of attendance because it seems like a small thing, but in a school like this, it is the thing.

Thompson: Yes.

Tavis: If you can’t get the kids in the classroom…

Thompson: Can’t teach them.

Tavis: Exactly. But I’m also glad you raised it because one of the things that I think has to be at the top of the list of the dumbest things that our education system has done over years now is to punish kids for being truant. So, as you know, here’s how we – you’re laughing already about how we do this. You skip school; we punish you by kicking you out of school [laugh], which is stupid to me. I mean, if you’re skipping school, there’s a reason why you’re not coming to school.

Thompson: Right.

Tavis: And the punishment can’t be to kick you out of school for playing hooky, for being truant. So what have you learned about how to get kids at least to get up in the morning and just come? As you know, half the battle is what?

Thompson: Showing up.

Tavis: What have you learned about how to get these kids – what’s the reason, the rationale, you give for them to come to school every day?

Thompson: Well, one, in our environment that we just described, one caring and a sense of direction and a sense of purpose. The second thing we do is we don’t beat them up every day for not being here. We don’t crack the whip. We’re accountable to those numbers. They have a great impact on whether or not we’re successful and that attendance is critical.

But brow-beating them is not going to make – I used to be 15. I used to be 16. Brow-beating me is a good way to get me to not do what you need me to do. But at the same time, we have to maintain that accountability.

So to give you an example of some of the creative ways that we’ve gone about it is we’ve set up makeup days for attendance. I’m not giving diplomas to people and passing people who have 30 days absences. You gotta be kidding me. Everybody else is coming and you need to be here too. What message am I sending if I let you miss 30 days and I still pass you? Not gonna happen.

So we had assemblies with every student who was in that category. I think it was about 90 out of our 400. And then we invited their parents in to educate them and let them know what we were going to do. Four days a week, students can come and stay after school and do makeup work. And for every three hours that you spend, you earn a day back.

Because there are some inherent realities that our young people face. We have teen mothers, teen fathers, young people who are supporting their families, young people who are supporting themselves and homeless students, five categories that impact a child’s attendance out of 400. I guarantee you, out of that 95, those five categories exist.

Tavis: I am blown away, to your point now, Dr. Thompson, by the number of kids who for a variety of reasons have to work. It reminds me of way back in the day when, you know, kids couldn’t get to school. My grandmother couldn’t go to school ’cause she was needed on the farm to work.

Thompson: Right.

Tavis: But here we are in 2013 and that need still exists, that many of them can’t get to school on the regular ’cause they’re needed to make some money.

Thompson: They have to make some money. It’s a real life choice that they’re making.

Tavis: These are kids, though.

Thompson: Yeah. You and I, for me, I remember begging my parents for a job. My dad told me, “You have the rest of your life to work, you know, enjoy.” He wouldn’t give me $20, but he’d say I gotta get a job, right [laugh]? But these kids don’t have the most basic necessities. Like I said, a lot of the kids who are working, and I find it appalling.

I didn’t have to do this until I was in my late 20s. These young kids are having to raise themselves in some cases. They’re having to take care of themselves. They’re having to be contributors in difficult households, the whole New Orleans scenario. And it’s not just in New Orleans. You could take this to Detroit. You could go to any major urban city and you will find the same plight.

There’s something inherently wrong when there’s a nation – the greatest commodity is our children and I just have a belief, when you want to examine which direction your country’s headed in, look to how you treat your kids. Look to how they’re living and you’ll find where you are in that progression.

Tavis: If the right Americans who are watching OWN and the right Americans who watch our work here on PBS think that is an “inner city” problem, then what gets done? How does it become a priority?

Thompson: Wow. I have worked in rural, suburban and inner city communities and I will tell you, to some degree on any level, what I’m seeing here exists. What you will find is that, in many of those communities, they’re easier to hide. They’re just easier to hide because there are more people who look like the norm or who are in the front. And it’s not cool to come out of your house and share what your plight is, but they exist.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds to go. Let me close by asking, for you, what the value is of this series, “Blackboard Wars” being seen on TV? What’s the value of the American people being able to see what you’re up against and what’s happening here?

Thompson: Well, first and foremost, these young people that are portrayed in this show and these teachers, they are just like teachers and young people all over the country. I would hope that this fosters a greater dialogue about how we raise and how we care for our young people, regardless of where they are, and to take a different look at what we say we value about education. There’s more than testing that creates change in young peoples’ lives and a country’s future.

Tavis: Dr. Marvin Thompson is the principal of the John McDonogh School in New Orleans. He is one of the stars along with these precious children, these priceless children, of this series called “Blackboard Wars” on the OWN network. I’m honored to have you on this program.

Thompson: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Thank you for your work.

Thompson: I appreciate it.

Tavis: Our report that I referenced earlier on America’s education challenge is called “Education Under Arrest” and looks at the school to prison pipeline and what’s being done to keep kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system. “Education Under Arrest” airs on these PBS stations March 26 at 8 p.m. Until next time, thanks for tuning in, and keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm