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Thompson, who was filmed as part of "Blackboard Wars," said being the principal at a troubled high school in New Orleans is the biggest challenge of his career.
Courtesy of the Oprah Winfrey Network
Former Roanoke City Public Schools Superintendent Marvin Thompson is now principal at New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, which is featured on a new series on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Courtesy of the Oprah Winfrey Network
Although Marvin Thompson makes for a compelling lead character, he said he had no aspirations to be on TV.
Monday, March 4, 2013
Inside the halls of John McDonogh High School in New Orleans — dubbed one of the country’s worst schools — its new principal breaks up fights and counsels students whose lives outside school are filled with poverty, violence and neglect.
A new series now airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network chronicles the troubled school hungry for a turnaround and its new charismatic, reform-minded leader with Roanoke ties: Marvin Thompson.
“I always knew I wanted to find something where I could make a difference,” he says in the opening scenes. “Transforming this school is the biggest challenge, by far, of my career.”
Thompson was Roanoke’s superintendent of schools from 2005 until he stepped down two years later amid criticism of his leadership style. Now he is a key figure in the show “Blackboard Wars” and said he doesn’t have any regrets from his time in Roanoke.
When Thompson arrived, the Roanoke schools were confronting safety and performance issues, as well as the abrupt retirement of its former superintendent.
Thompson was seen by some as bold and aggressive. He pushed student achievement, but also was criticized for what was described as top-down management. Hundreds of teachers left during his tenure. When it became public Thompson applied for a position in Florida he did not get, he stepped down.
“I don’t try to have too many regrets, and I don’t try to look backward,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Since leaving Roanoke schools, Thompson founded an educational consulting company, EmpowerED, with which he still works, and earned his doctorate. He was hired as John McDonogh’s new leader last spring.
Now he’s bringing the same brand of bold change to the troubled New Orleans school.
Thompson said the rate at which violence and other challenges affect his students is high.
For instance, he said he has teenage students living on their own, including one whose mother put him out on the street.
“How you overcome that is building stability in the school,” he said.
But that won’t be easy. The show opens with a narrator explaining the school is one of the worst in the country while news footage of a 2003 shooting at the school plays.
In the show, Thompson is seen working toward that goal of stability. He greets students by name, sometimes with a hug. He disciplines students, but also works with them and their families. In one especially tender moment he consoles a student after classmates call her ugly.
Thompson said he had no aspirations to be on TV, though he makes for a compelling lead character.
During the hiring process, he said, he was told there was a 15 percent chance a crew would film the school. He later learned filming was a go.
“After I woke up from passing out,” he joked, “I started thinking about my staff and students. My first thought was more them than me.”
Some in the community have been critical of the show and the school’s portrayal. This is also the first year the school has been run by a charter company, a controversial move addressed in the show. There’s also the question of whether a camera crew should be inside a troubled school.
But Thompson and the show’s executive producer, Eddie Barbini, said John McDonogh High’s story is an important one to tell.
Thompson said his school, and its circumstances and environment, can be found in major cities across the country and the show offers “an opportunity to address the most challenging learning environments in this country.”
Barbini said while the show is about the students and the school’s transformation, it’s intended to get people talking.
“I hope this show starts a conversation about education,” Barbini said. “I think it’s that simple. Our intentions were good. We love the characters. We love the kids. We love the school.”
He and his crew gained access to the school through Steve Barr, a well-known school reformer and creator of Future Is Now Schools, the charter group running John McDonogh this year. Barbini said his crew was following Barr, who appears in the show, for about a year before they landed in New Orleans.
Barbini said Thompson, or “Dr. T” as he and others call him, has been instrumental in the show. He said Thompson is a key character and led the crew to incredible stories.
“He’s a great guy. He is very charismatic,” Barbini said. “He’s got a great demeanor with the kids. He really cares about the kids. He’s very protective with the kids. He saw the value in telling this story. He was very easy to work with. He’s a great man. I like him a lot.”
Barbini called the six-episode series documentary-style filmmaking, rather than reality TV. Footage of the school is juxtaposed with on-camera interviews of key figures, including Thompson.
Thompson said nothing in the show is staged or scripted, every event actually happened.
The first episode ends with John McDonogh playing in a football scrimmage the first week of school, hoping to turn around the team’s 0-10 record last year and use a victory as a metaphor for the school’s own turnaround story.
But as students prepare to board the bus back to school, a McDonogh student gets into a fight with a student from another school. Thompson reprimands the student while the latter is handcuffed and surrounded by police cars.
“I can’t tell you how p----- off I am right now,” Thompson says in a voice-over.
He said it was important to bring students to the game and now they are back fighting the reputation that the school is “a bunch of thugs.”
“This win was more than just a victory,” he said. “It was symbolic of this school turning over a new leaf.”
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