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Reaching and Inspiring African-American Students: A Case Study in New Orleans

Instead of finding a calling as an educator, I almost ended up as another sobering statistic about black men.

Spring 1994: I found myself as a hopeless graduate from a Louisiana high school with a mediocre GPA, low ACT score, and limited options. Though I enrolled in college, I was quickly tracked into remedial classes, where I watched many of my classmates run into academic and financial barriers and drop out of college. After losing a friend to gun violence in the fall of 1995, with the help of my college advisor and mentor, I chose a different path that changed my life forever.

My mentor Willis Jacobs helped me redefine my expectations of what I could do with my life. Mr. Jacobs exposed me to the writings of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Thurgood Marshall, and talked to me about defying the odds and challenging the path that society had defined for me as an African-American man. At that point, I realized that taking my education seriously was the only way to make my life purposeful and meaningful.

Over the past thirteen years, as an educator, school leader, and now as the CEO of a charter management organization operating three schools in New Orleans, those lessons have stuck with me and helped me define my belief system as it relates to students. Too many of our students in New Orleans face the same set of circumstances that I did in 1994 – lost with an absence of mentors, not on pace academically, and destined for remedial classes with a lack of hope and focus. In a city where 50% of African American children under the age of 19 live in poverty[1] and 35% of African American residents live below the poverty line[2], college is still too often just a luxury for some students, not an option for all. To help those students overcome these challenges and find their own path to success, I co-founded InspireNOLA Charter Schools two years ago.

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At InspireNOLA, we are determined to change the expectations for African American kids in our city. Over 90% of our students are African American and over 80% qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Our high school, Edna Karr, just graduated 100% of its senior class. Our elementary school, Alice Harte, students outperformed the city and state in ELA, Math, Social Studies and Science on state assessments. Both schools were rated A and B by the state of Louisiana last year. Our successes demonstrate that great instruction, a strong positive culture, and a system that allows us to be creative allows for more African American students to access opportunities and enables us to develop our students to become the next generation of leaders and citizens of New Orleans.

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Our schools in InspireNOLA focus on raising expectations and self-esteem for students so that they are engaged and motivated long before they get to college. Our teachers strive to create rigorous classrooms where students analyze information, make comparisons, and engage in conversations. With the unique flexibility of the New Orleans charter system, we are able to offer programs, rewards, and incentives that encourage students and motivate them to push through difficult obstacles. We use scholars programs to reward students’ academic achievements and mentoring programs to show students what success really looks like, and inspire them to put in the work necessary to create their own path.

In a year where New Orleans has seen a significant and worrisome increase in violence and death, I often think of my friend who was killed at a young age and Mr. Jacobs. Recently I attended two funerals for former students and Mr. Jacobs funeral that made me realize, once again, of why I continue to fight for our children. As our teachers return to our schools and prepare for another year, I encourage everyone to keep believing in our youth because I was once a struggling lost teenager. Remember that our students, like the 1994 me, deserve hope – and most importantly – someone who cares and shows them love! Keep Inspiring!

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[1] http://www.datacenterresearch.org/reports_analysis/new-orleans-kids-working-parents-and-poverty/

[2] http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-New-Orleans-Louisiana.html

3 Comments on “Reaching and Inspiring African-American Students: A Case Study in New Orleans

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