Public Education Matters
“In the grand scheme of things, the one thing we can’t choose in our life is our parents, and the only social system that we have in this country to actually change a child’s life outcome is public education,” says Dana Henry, New Orleans city director for Stand for Children Louisiana.
A New Orleans native, Henry has lived his entire life in the city save for his undergraduate years at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and law studies at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge. This month makes 16 years that he has worked as a practicing attorney.
Henry’s life changed course when he was first asked to be on the board for Sci Academy, a charter school in New Orleans East, in 2008. “Sitting on that board really opened my eyes to the need for strong advocacy and strong leadership in public education in the city of New Orleans,” he says.
His experience as a public school board member prompted his interest to apply and accept his current city director position for Stand for Children Louisiana in Jan. 2014. Stand for Children is a national education advocacy organization that fosters parent and community voices to enable them to contribute to improving public education policy. Since its founding in 1996, Stand for Children has been implemented in 11 states, including Louisiana.
With Henry at the helm in New Orleans, Stand for Children Louisiana has seen a number of wins for public school children, their parents and the community as a whole. One major accomplishment has been to maintain Common Core in public schools throughout the state. Henry describes Common Core as “a set of higher standards needed in urban public education systems in cities like New Orleans to be able to compete, not just within New Orleans, but state to state and even globally as well.”
The organization also helped identify and recruit the current superintendent of the Orleans Parish public schools system, Dr. Henderson Louis, Jr. Dr. Louis took the position after a two-year lapse of not having a permanent superintendent and “has brought a strong sense of stability to that position,” Henry says.
As city director, Henry’s day-to-day roles revolve around engaging with elected officials in New Orleans who have a major impact on setting policy for public education. He also works closely with members of the New Orleans Parish School Board and Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in addition to other school leaders throughout the city.
Beyond coordinating with local and state leadership, the foundation of Stand for Children’s mission and success is parent engagement. Henry works with two community organizers at the grassroots level who identify strong parent leaders, and then educate and train them to be empowered members of the community and their children’s schools. That, to Henry, is the best part of his job.
“Seeing parents understand how important it is to get involved, to be empowered, that is the most fulfilling thing,” Henry says. “To see a parent who really doesn’t think that he or she had any power in influencing a policy in their child’s school or in the Orleans Parish School District … But once the lightbulb goes off, all they want to do is push and advocate strong policies for their kids in public schools.”
Stand for Children and Henry’s mission for the community is to ensure that the positive outcomes of children’s lives aren’t limited by the area in which they live. Henry and his organization emphasize the importance of parental choice in where their child attends school.
“If a child is relegated to a substandard school that has substandard leadership simply because they live in a certain part of town, then we’re not allowing them to live up to their potential in life, and we’re not allowing them to fairly pursue the American dream,” he continues.
Having started his career as a lawyer, Henry identifies and relishes in the unique opportunities his position as New Orleans city director provides.
“As an attorney, you work in a very confined set of rules, and processes and procedures, and oftentimes you don’t get to see the impact you have on your client,” Henry says. “Working at Stand for Children over the past two years, I get to see students and parents on a regular basis whose policies we influence that have an impact on them on a regular basis.”
But improving the lives of local children doesn’t stop when the afternoon bell rings. Henry advocates for community involvement in providing extracurricular activities for children as well. He coaches girls’ basketball for Kenilworth Playground, which comes under the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission.
“Even outside of the classroom, kids and parents need to have strong advocates when it comes to social skills, emotional support, team-building and just life in general,” Henry says. “So I take very seriously my role in coaching girls’ basketball at Kenilworth Park and try to provide as much non-academic support to the community as possible.” stand.org/louisiana