Black excellence?: How a school abused Black students & got fame for sending them to Ivy Leagues
Black students’ academic accomplishments shouldn’t be noteworthy because they’ve had to overcome some kind of horrible suffering
By Kevin Clay
The culture of physical and emotional abuse, blackmailing, and the intellectual sabotage of students recently uncovered at the T.M. Landry school in Louisiana by the New York Times, atop what was previously a narrative of “Black student exceptionalism,” positions the school at the nexus of much larger and pervasive problems in the way U.S. society attempts to shape Black schools and the students who must endure them. Urban renewal 2.0, the proliferation of privately operated “no-excuses” schools, and the demand for/celebration of resilience and grit in Black children represent a trifecta of market-informed assaults on Black school-communities in the most-recent era of school reform.
These assaults dehumanize Black children and destroy Black neighborhoods in various ways, yet most of these developments—apart from this recent ugly portrait of Landry—have garnered nearly universal appeal.
We were first introduced to Landry during the 2017 academic year, when one of its’ students became a viral sensation after opening an acceptance letter to Harvard University, surrounded by his peers. This had been the third consecutive year that some number of Landry students had gone onto the Ivy Leagues—a feat that many would consider unlikely for Black students from a poor underdeveloped community in Louisiana.
The private school claimed to offer a “nontraditional” approach to education, which its founder, Tracey Landry, identified as central to the school’s success. Unfortunately, the Times’ report revealed that the image of Landry as a factory of high achievers was a veneer for what was truly a menacing and traumatizing place for many students. Behind these viral “success stories,” student academic records were falsified and embellished at the will of Tracey Landry, while students earned good grades in exchange for compliance, deference, and for remaining silent about physical abuse. To strong-arm compliance, Landry made threats to ruin students’ futures in both specific and nonspecific ways. He lowered grades and withheld transcripts from students and families who disobeyed. He physically struck some students and publicly shamed others in front of their peers. Landry also staged in-school competitions to pit Black students against their white peers, which he said was intended to promote academic achievement.
But the Times exposé does very little to draw a connection between this kind of exploitation and the racial identity of most Landry students. T.M. Landry is located in the Breaux Bridge section of Louisiana—a city of nearly 50% Black residents that sees 30% of its citizens living below the poverty line. Developers see profit opportunities stemming from targeted investments in the development of poor neighborhoods and cities like Breaux Bridges, dire to attract businesses in areas long abandoned by corporations and the jobs that they promise.
Schools (charter schools in particular) play a pivotal role in this process of ushering in tax abated land development. Researchers also find that in such places the strategic location of choice and private school options send signals to white families and people of means that redevelopment is nigh, and that the neighborhood is changing into a place where they can take advantage of affordable homes (that will likely appreciate in value) yet avoid placing their children in “failing” public schools. All of this facilitates the process of gentrification and the tangential displacement of Black families.
As new money comes in, it redefines a place, and undesirable residents are strategically removed through processes like eminent domain, increases in taxes, or rising rent prices. This cycle of investment and Black displacement for the benefit of wealthier and whiter populations resembles similar processes 70 years ago that concentrated the Black poor in the most blighted neighborhoods.
With its “successful” and “innovative” methods, Landry had been able to pull in a reported quarter of a million dollars in private donations just this year, and backing from wealthy donors who wanted to support its expansion. This seems to have worked out particularly well up until this point, considering that Landry announced it would open an additional campus in Opelousas, LA.
Over the last 20 years, there’s been an uptick in the private sector’s interest in the untapped market that is “ghetto schooling.” They often promise the same “educational innovations” that break from the orthodoxy of traditional public schooling, like the ones the Landry’s claimed to offer. But the Times report revealed that what the Landry’s regarded as educational innovation was just a hyper-punitive form of the no-excuses methods adopted by many urban charter schools. It described children made to kneel on rice and gravel for hours and children with disabilities forced into closets.
Although Landry’s violent actions go far beyond what is typically understood as “no-excuses” behavior management practices—which often involve punitive and militaristic punishment/rewards systems for some of the most banal student behaviors (e.g. talking in the hall, walking out of line, or putting one’s head on his/her desk)—both Landry and no-excuses charters engage in a criminalization and hyper-surveillance of Black children’s’ bodies that mirrors the carceral state. These “tough on you,” nitpicking, overly-strict methods of Black student control reflect the logic of “tough on crime” broken windows policing in Black communities. When the assumption is that Black children, like Black adults, are inherently deviant and in need of regimented discipline and oversight, schooling becomes another arm of the criminal justice system.
In addition to the reported falsification of transcripts, many argue that the embellishment of student poverty and personal hardship did the work of convincing admissions officers of schools like Harvard to accept these students.
Stories of Black perseverance and grit to achieve academically despite structural poverty get elevated by the public, and communicate a message that it’s normal to look to these examples of “Black exceptionalism.” This diminishes our grasp of structural inequality as a public problem, because “if you work hard, you can overcome.”
These stories serve as a silent excuse not to address the enduring legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal, block busting, and exclusion from welfare-state protections that have plagued Black Americans for centuries. The elevation of “despite the odds” narratives normalizes Black suffering under conditions of structural racism, and raises the all too important question in Landry’s case: what were we celebrating in the first place?
Black students’ academic accomplishments shouldn’t be noteworthy to the public because they’ve had to overcome some kind of horrible suffering. And conversely, we should not be indifferent or politically docile when most Black youths experience schooling as a reminder that they aren’t smart enough, white enough, or good enough.
T.M. Landry’s case reveals the ways structures that seek to redefine and repossess Black space are interconnected with processes and ideologies that frame Black life and manage Black bodies in ways that deny Black humanity. The market forces that banish and concentrate Black folks in the poorest communities to usher in economic development also provide surveillance and punishment mechanisms that attempt to occupy and contain the threat of Black deviance (or rebellion) in neighborhoods.
What is happening at the community level informs a similar process occurring in schools. These processes ultimately render Black youth and communities disposable. Unless, of course, they can suck it up and overcome obstacles that were put in front of them by the very systems and institutions purporting to be invested in their success and well-being.
Kevin L. Clay is a Postdoctoral Associate at Rutgers University-Newark. His research examines Black and Latinx youths’ political identity development. You can find his most recent publications in the American Educational Research Journal.