NCHS: Neither Zoo, Nor Blackboard Jungle

By Kevin Shannahan/Op-Ed

Say what you will about Dr. Eloi, he does not think small. Were I in my first year as superintendent of the Natchitoches School System, I would have chosen a less ambitious undertaking than a new high school in the parish, say achieving peace in the Middle East or cold fusion. That would have proven a far less daunting project by comparison.

While the prospective new high school seems to be on indefinite hold, one disturbing aspect of the controversy surrounding the proposal I have found unjust, underserved, and just plain wrong was the constant denigration of Natchitoches Central High School by the consolidation opponents. “I’ll never send my kids there!” proclaimed one rather overwrought parent at a school board meeting. That line drew murmurs of approval from the crowd. Her next statement, in which she flat out stated that her family would send their children out of district if consolidation passed garnered actual applause. She is far from the only parent I have heard express such an opinion. Notice she did not say she would move out of the parish, just that she would send her children to a public high school in a neighboring parish, one “…right down the road…”

Let me be absolutely clear. It is well within a parent’s rights to homeschool their children or send them to a private school. I am a kindergarten through high school alumni of the Catholic schools of the Syracuse, NY diocese. My parents made that decision for my brother and me at a considerable sacrifice of money and time. You are free to move to a district with what you believe are better schools. What you are not, or should not be, free to do, the district’s passivity on the subject notwithstanding, is send your child to a school outside of the parish while still a resident here. That is neither legal nor moral. You are also costing the district, and the taxpayers, a considerable amount of money.

This opprobrium directed towards NCHS, often tinged with barely concealed racism, is quite simply unwarranted. I have no ties to the public school system beyond that of a citizen and a taxpayer. What I am writing comes from over ten years of observation as a photographer and writer. It is also based upon years of observation of friends and acquaintances, all solidly members of the middle to upper middle classes, who have sent their children to NCHS.

Natchitoches Central High School is much better than its critics assume. From National Merit semifinalists to an award-winning orchestra, there is much about NCHS that regretfully escapes the notice of the wider public.

Over the 28 years I have lived in Natchitoches since leaving the Air Force, NCHS has produced each of the parish’s several National Merit Finalists or semi-finalists. Consistently placing students in the National Merit Scholarship competition is a nationwide standard of excellence. Our parish is nowhere near that standard, While there is considerable room for improvement, it should be noted that over the past 25 years, NCHS is where the parish’s National Merit Semi-Finalists and Finalists have come from.

Our community has a true gem in the NCHS Orchestra. This talented group of young men and women have toured Europe and have repeatedly performed in Carnegie Hall. The orchestra’s young musicians routinely win all-state honors. One of its alumni went on to earn a degree in music at NSU, is teaching at NCHS and helping with his former orchestra. Other orchestra alumni are succeeding in careers as varied as teaching, engineering, and the military. Music education, and the discipline of mastering an instrument, are valuable preparations for any endeavor.

Natchitoches Central High School’s reputation in certain areas of the parish as a crime ridden repository of ignorance is simply not borne out by even a cursory examination of the facts. NCHS students routinely score each year in the upper reaches of the ACT score distribution with several scoring in the 30’s. The school offers calculus and physics as well as a full range of gifted and talented services. NCHS alumni are succeeding in the military, workforce and in demanding majors in colleges across that state. The school is neither zoo nor Blackboard Jungle.