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Taking down Oprah: OWN’s reality show 'Blackboard Wars' gets skewered in the media

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 2:40 p.m. MST

The Oprah Winfrey Network's reality TV series "Blackboard Wars" is being widely chided for its perceived exploitation of students at John McDonogh High School in New Orleans.

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“Blackboard Wars,” a reality TV program on the Oprah Winfrey Network, shows educators from The Future is Now — a high-profile, not-for-profit organization — working to turn around a struggling New Orleans high school.

But midway through its six-episode run, “Blackboard Wars” is drawing a flurry of scathing criticism for essentially treating the students of John McDonogh High School like living prop pieces instead of young minds hungry for learning.

“It’s clear what the adults … have to gain from conducting a school turnaround from inside a fishbowl,” Natalie Hopkinson blogged Wednesday for the Washington Post. “But what I don’t see is what the kids will get out of starring in this kind of ruin/poverty porn. Instead we get … cameras gawking as a student tells a school counselor how she became homeless, and that another is off her meds. There’s the girl roaming the hallways nine months pregnant, dilated one centimeter, but wonders aloud how the baby will exit her body. The cameras panning in on an openly gay 16-year-old having an hours-long standoff on the school steps with her mother who vows to stop the ‘Devil’ from winning.”

Thursday, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry voiced similar sentiments in his op-ed piece with the headline, “Will John McDonogh's students regret their exposure on ‘Blackboard Wars?’ ”

“In the second episode we were introduced to two students whose disruptive behavior is linked to their failure to take their meds for bipolar disorder,” DeBerry wrote. “One of those students later breaks down after she sings ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ at a school assembly. She explains on camera that she sang the same song at the funeral after her father killed himself. … In the third episode, we see a young girl with great grades but whose love for other girls has prompted her mother to kick her out of her house. That same mother then comes to the school and threatens to have the daughter she kicked out arrested as a runaway.

“It's gripping television, for sure, but will those students who've had their mental health issues and their sexuality broadcast to the world continue thinking their appearance on ‘Blackboard Wars’ was a good idea?”

Andre Perry, a Loyola University education policy expert and New Orleans resident, drove his knife even deeper. Perry said in a Wednesday blog post that “Blackboard Wars” exploits teens who are not only socioeconomically challenged but also New Orleans natives who’ve been fighting an uphill battle to get a quality education ever since Hurricane Katrina.

“Teachers, leaders, and The Future is Now — the non-profit associated with the series — have much to gain from this reality show version of ‘Lean on Me,’ ” Perry said. “But, I struggle to see the long-term benefits for students, their families or the community from bringing cameras in the school. … The problem with ‘Blackboard Wars’ is that the story arc favors a national agenda and national providers. Students are mere backdrops that fuel superfluous drama. In addition, New Orleanians already live in a perceived fishbowl. … The students and families of John Mac pay a tremendous social and emotional (price).”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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