NEW ORLEANS LAYOVER
We started our day at New Harmony High School, part of the charter school system in New Orleans, Louisiana. Unlike some of the other charters, New Harmony isn’t a franchise with a strict, rules-based, college-aimed focus. This school is rooted in its surroundings, approaching interactions with students, curriculum itself and the entire focus of the school through the lens of New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana, how people live in this place, how people learn to survive even. The vision statement on their website says “students graduate as individuals who practice resilience and understand ecology—the interconnectedness of people, land, air, and water.” I admire their ambitions and look forward to seeing if their students graduate that way in two years. The school is currently only two years old with freshman and sophomore classes only.
After meeting three dynamic women in the front office who happen to be named Sunny, Rae (of) Hope, Tom and I made our way down to a classroom to meet teacher and “education advisor” Jeff Carver in the midst of teaching his english class. They might have actually called it “humanities,” but nevertheless, they were focusing the class on a book they’d been reading, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The kids were doing something of a spectrum exercise, moving around the classroom to different corners to agree, disagree, strongly disagree, etc. with a proposition that Jeff had put forward in relation to an issue in the book. The issue was a frank one, a controversial one regarding abuse and whether you would still care about or even love the abuser. It really was a powerful exercise and the majority of the kids were into it and able to explain their positions.
The relaxed atmosphere of the classroom, the constant chatter, the earbuds and cellphones, the disarray of desks, kids sitting on top of them, kids sitting on beanbags in the corner, no clock in the room—all of this had me a little on edge coming from a much more orderly, parochial school background some 25 years ago. Not having children myself, I’ve not witnessed the changes in education, much less these kinds of progressive approaches. I should not judge, but we did speak to a few kids, and it seems to work for some and not for others even today based on their feedback.
After class let out, we walked down to the principal’s office, or in this case Sunny Dawn Summers goes by “School Leader” according to the website. Sunny not only leads the school, she also helped design the school as part of a competition to rethink high school. Sunny is a transplant to New Orleans. She was born and raised in Kansas originally, worked there for nine or so years before having the opportunity to end that career and relocate to New Orleans—a place she feels is more home than anywhere else. After several months of adapting to her new surroundings, she was inspired by an artist friend to get into teaching, and one thing led to another from there.
The vision for New Harmony doesn’t all boil down to Sunny, though, as one of the most unique elements of the school is how students themselves are involved in decision-making, down to the hiring of all staff members. With the students’ voices at play, the shape of the school, the curriculum, the teachers, all that is informed by the people who are being shaped in the end. And while the school is not geared around college-prep, any student can take a TOPS University track in their coursework, that is the state-legislated college track. Students have options, and if they are ready to pursue those options, they are available to them.
What is so unique about this school and this charter system is the kind of specialization allowed at a school, such that at New Harmony, each week the students spend one day “out in the field” doing work related to Coastal Preservation or Restoration. Imagine when you were young and you got that one field trip a semester to the museum or something, and it lasted half the day, then you had to write an essay about it. Well here at New Harmony you spend the whole day out planting mangroves in the marsh and that IS the living essay, that is the assignment, the lesson, the learning, but just THAT week, and next week there’s something new. Incredible. And always about the land, the water, the people of Louisiana, if and only if you go to this school.
We spoke with Sunny about whether this charter system, meant to level the playing field in New Orleans, doing away with the inequalities built into neighborhood schools (funded with neighborhood dollars), was doing as intended. It turned into a conversation about what public education truly is, if it’s changed in these days of the charter school, and if that’s specific as well to places that have seen tragedy like New Orleans. In the end, it seems you still have parents who are involved, and those who are not involved. You still have schools that are doing well, and schools that are failing. The inequality seems to find a way—maybe it’s legacy, wanting the football and the band, maybe it’s poor management, maybe it’s flawed theories.
For now, New Harmony is riding a high. According to Sunny, as a new school, you end up with most parents getting involved in their kids’ education. They made a choice to send them there, so that choice continues into parent-teacher conferences and orientations and back to school nights. The “Big Picture” model that New Harmony is instilling in their curriculum is to build for success not just in college, but instead in life. For instance, ten, twenty years down the road, do you have a long term relationship? Have you stayed at a job when times have gotten tough? Are you still connected to a mentor that you had in high school? This is what New Harmony is building toward, rethinking high school one student at a time, rethinking the future of success.
From one high school to another, this was our afternoon. We headed next to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) to give a workshop to about 40 students in the dance department. Kesha McKey welcomed us in and got us situated. I worked with the students in two 90 minute shifts, so thankfully they were split into two smaller groups. NOCCA is not a charter school, rather it is a state-run arts conservatory, where students can do just arts education or they can do both their academics and arts education in full. The students I was teaching were dedicated conservatory dancers, dressed in black leotards and tights, hair pulled back tight. I had a few young men as well. I immediately knew it would be a challenge to get them outside of their classical training and technique, but what fun!
In each group, some struggled more than others and some latched on immediately to my thought process. It was refreshing to get moving in my own body again as well. By the end of the exercises, I had them generating their own movement material in response to several prompts—a series of steps built upon from the beginning of our time together. Even the students who produced classic jazz moves were fun to watch, but the two dancers who stalked each other, pushing and shoving, with no clear gesture toward a “dance” move, they had to be where I was smiling most inside. Well done.