Advice from ‘Dr. T,’ star of ‘Blackboard Wars,’ on how to reach students

  • Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 12:30 a.m.
Dr. Marvin Thompson, a.k.a. ‘Dr. T,’ of the television series ‘Blackboard Wars,’ speaks Saturday evening at the Salisbury Country Club. The reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network focuses on the problems of a New Orleans charter school.
Dr. Marvin Thompson, a.k.a. ‘Dr. T,’ of the television series ‘Blackboard Wars,’ speaks Saturday evening at the Salisbury Country Club. The reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network focuses on the problems of a New Orleans charter school.

SALISBURY — On the TV show “Blackboard Wars,” viewers have followed Principal Marvin Thompson and students at John McDonogh High School as they deal with the problems of violence, drugs and poverty in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

During the show’s six-episode pilot run, which premiered in February, “Dr. T” has dealt with gun violence, poor teaching and community opposition.

None of that stops him, Thompson says.

“I’m firm believer that change doesn’t come about just because someone demands it,” Thompson said during a visit to the Country Club of Salisbury on Saturday.

True change comes when people are empowered, “and that really comes through understanding.”

Thompson, whose show on the Oprah Winfrey Network finished its initial run last month, spoke at an informal, invitation-only dinner gathering.

His brother, Antwaun Thompson, general manager of the club, invited educators and others to attend and take part in a Q-and-A session afterward.

Speaking to the Post before his talk, Marvin Thompson said his career in education had included time working in North Carolina.

From his first job as a fifth-grade teacher, to his current work as a charter school principal and educational consultant, Thompson said the steps in his career have come “serendipitously.”

His primary mission, he said, is “to help low performing districts improve and create systems of sustainability.”

Thompson also holds the position of chief academic officer for Future Is Now Schools, a private company that operates charter schools across the U.S.

Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, has a very large charter school movement, Thompson said.

And the problems there, though large, are not insurmountable.

“The fundamental issues in New Orleans, you can translate to any urban setting, whether it’s Chicago, New York, Detroit, Miami, (or) Little Rock,” he said.

The difference lies in how people respond to those issues, he said.

“Schools are not the creators of problems, we are the receivers of societal issues,” Thompson said.

Everything from the decline of families to the impacts of poverty can keep students from learning to their full potential.

“Schools in these types of situations can spend more time meeting basic safety, social and emotional needs,” he said.

For those who had seen “Blackboard Wars,” Thompson had some behind-the-scenes stories to share.

The first time he arrived at the school, before taking the job, fewer than a quarter of the students enrolled were actually present..

“On this particular day ... I walked by classrooms with teachers but no kids, and I walked by classrooms of kids with no teachers,” he said.

During the summer, he interviewed new teachers and worked with them to quickly set up a new curriculum and policies.

The TV series didn’t start as a series, Thompson said, but as an hour-long documentary project.

Then, he said, when Winfrey’s team picked it up, the series became about “Dr. T” and the unfolding stories of students and teachers.

Although there have been problems, Thompson said, the school is improving.

He talked about bringing in federal agents with dogs to literally sniff out hidden drugs and firearms, and installing metal detectors to reduce the threat of violence.

“The culture of the school is changing because the culture is changing,” Thompson said.

He also described a program to allow low-performing students to make up the state’s exam for seniors, so that they don’t give up hope of graduating.

Questions for Thompson included asking for advice on how to deal with students.

His response: Remember to speak to teens as though they were adults, but hear them as children.

“I talk to 19-year-old kids at my school who are really 12,” he said.

“If we don’t listen and make sure we hear that we’ve heard them, they’re not going to listen to us.”

And, at some point, there have to be consequences for students’ actions, he said.

Assistant Principal Fateama Fulmore of Concord High School said she had watched the TV series and was interested in hearing more about Thompson’s experiences.

Fulmore said she was glad to hear “how he’s working to establish a new culture of excellence there, for those kids.”

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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