A seat at the table: key learning on community in New Orleans

During October half term, a group of ambassadors and Teach First staff from South London visited New Orleans to find out more about the educational landscape post hurricane Katrina and to explore what has led to the district’s success in improving pupil outcomes. In this blog, formed mainly by the voices of those who shared their experiences with us during our time visiting schools, social enterprises, and community projects, I include some reflections on our learning about community following the visit.

nola street

We came to New Orleans, Louisiana, during October half term to understand what has enabled the Greater New Orleans Teach for America alumni community to work together to create systemic change and improve pupil outcomes.  I leave now with far greater insight into the community that extends beyond the alumni network, and what we can learn from this and bring to our own schools and neighbourhoods in South London to improve the work that we do here.

How we view and define ‘community’ is important

The concept of community itself is complex and challenging in New Orleans. Eighty per cent of schools in New Orleans are now run by Charter operators, a number that increased significantly in the wake of hurricane Katrina.  Many stories we heard throughout our visit recounted the often tumultuous relationship between educational reformers and the neighbourhoods that they serve. It is easy to understand the existence of these tensions in New Orleans, where 7,500 Orleans Parish School employees were dismissed in the wake of the hurricane. Teach for America Alumni made up a large proportion of teachers filling the spaces of their veteran predecessors in New Orleans, with one-third of all children in the city now being taught either by Teach for America alumni or corps members. With “a new system by and large comprised of people who are not from here”, a question is raised by Teach for America’s executive director in the region, Kira Orange-Jones: “What do we do with that power?” Arriving at an answer to this question has been no small feat for educational reformers in New Orleans, and undoubtedly complicated the already challenging relationships between schools, Teach for America alumni and their communities further.

How pupils themselves view and define their communities is also riddled by post-Katrina complexities in New Orleans. ‘Doc’ (otherwise known as Dr. Eric Jones) made a useful distinction for us between ‘communities’ and ‘neighbourhoods’ – seen as two separate entities by many in New Orleans. Communities, Doc says, are a resource. Communities are changeable, influenced by many different cultures, beliefs, and provide a richness of experience drawn from a variety of people – those who ‘birth’ the community and those who ‘rebirth’ it. Neighbourhoods on the other hand are ‘fixed’; a place where one may identify with culturally and geographically – ‘home’ in both the literal and symbolic sense. This distinction of community and neighbourhood was illustrated unintentionally by Markeith, a pupil we met by chance on our ferry ride across the river to the Algiers district one morning. Markeith (like many of his peers) normally makes a long bus journey each morning to KIPP Renaissance High School, one of the many Charters in the Algiers district, where pupils join him from various wards from all over New Orleans. It is not unusual and is in fact the norm for pupils in New Orleans to travel from one side of the city to the other to attend school. Markeith tells us he’d rather go to Walker-Landry High School, where his cousins and older family members attended and were able to ‘take part in the band’ (brass bands feature strongly in many of the ‘traditional’ schools in New Orleans), although he values the discipline and hard-working ethic that KIPP Renaissance has afforded him. For Markeith, school and home culture are two distinct forms of community. Markeith told us of his dream to become an artist one day, sharing his artwork that he creates in the limited time he has outside school:

markeith nola

Markeith, a pupil from KIPP Renaissance, shows us his artwork on our ferry journey to Algiers

 Later that morning, we attended a panel discussion with several community leaders including Mary Laurie, Principal of Walker-Landry High School. Laurie posed an interesting question to frame our discussion around how schools are working with local communities: “are the community a resource for the school, or the school a resource for the community?”  This prompted me to question to what extent the schools that we work with at Teach First view themselves as a resource for the communities that they serve. How many schools are actively seeking out members of the community – or local neighbourhoods – to take a seat at roundtable discussions about the school’s place in the community, and the community’s place in the school?

panel nola

Teach First ambassadors and staff members join a panel of community leaders at Walker-Landry High School

 Who are we inviting to take a seat at the table?

The importance of involving local community members in discussions about the future of education featured in all of our discussions last week. Whether we heard from educators, pupils, or community leaders, all saw the importance of community voices being heard as integral to strengthening partnerships and creating lasting change. With such rapid pace of progress in New Orleans, this has not always been easy. Ting Yu, Teach for America ’03 Alum and Editor in Chief of One Day (Teach for America Alumni Magazine) writes that “it’s hard not to wonder if, in our urgency to get results, we’ve unintentionally silenced important voices who also believe in what’s best for kids”.

For some educators, this fear of being ‘silenced’ resonated more intensely than others. Mary Laurie, Principal of Landry-Walker High School opened our panel discussion on the first day of our visit by posing the question to us as listeners: “Do you believe that there is validity to what we are going to say?” Laurie’s colleague, Dr. Payne, Assistant Principal at Landry-Walker High School, spoke similarly of her experiences of veteran educators being side-lined and asked us to consider, “who is writing the storylines” when we talk about educational reform in New Orleans.

In recent years, London has seen exponential growth in pupil attainment for those from low income backgrounds which in many ways mirrors the staggering upward trajectory that New Orleans has seen since hurricane Katrina in 2005. The comments of the community leaders we spoke to on our first day provided a stark reminder that underneath the surface level data lay many unwritten stories that document London’s successes, and its failures.

We have to stop having ‘drive-by’ conversations

Ironically, many of the conversations we had on our community immersion tour with Doc on our first day in New Orleans were ‘drive-by’ conversations, in the literal sense. As we made our way across the Algiers district (all ten of us huddled into Doc’s truck) every other street corner prompted a “How y’all doin’?”, usually involving Doc hollering out of the side of his truck to greet school Principals, pupils, and neighbours.

doc nola

Doc at the entrance to our first school visit in Algiers: McDonogh 32

 Doc knows everybody in New Orleans. Or at least it seems that way. We couldn’t walk more than a few yards without being stopped by local residents, eager to check-in with Doc and share their news. Whilst at times it is hard to comprehend just how long it must have taken him to build these relationships, Doc strikes me as a person who makes investing in people a habit: “there ain’t no value in drive-by conversations. You got to stop and listen, really listen. Through listening, you gain trust, and that way, people want to work with you and tell you their stories. That’s where real change starts to happen.” Common sense, right? But if we are honest with ourselves, how often are we having ‘drive-by’ conversations in the day-to-day work that we do?

We were privileged to spend an afternoon later in the week at Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary, where Teach for America alum and Principal Krystal Hardy invited us to participate in a whole-staff CPD session on increasing parental engagement. The school are considering ways to form more meaningful relationships with parents, following initial success in raising attendance at their most recent ‘Open House’ event from 53 to over 250 parents from the local community. “Relationships are our greatest currency”, Krystal tells us. “It’s all about changing culture by listening, and understanding the reasons behind parental disengagement. Then, it’s about establishing what it would look like if they were engaged, and working out how to bridge the gap.”

sylvanie nola

 A corridor display at Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary School

 In New Orleans, the need to replace ‘drive-by’ conversations with meaningful is held with a great sense of urgency, heightened by the perceived ‘differences’ between educators and the communities that they serve. Arlene Casimir-Siar, a Brooklyn native ’11 Teach for America alum teaching Third Grade at KIPP Believe Primary School tells us of the challenges she faced when moving to New Orleans as an ‘outsider’, mistrusted by parents whom Arlene found it difficult to build relationships with when they had “never seen promises being delivered in the past”. “I had to show them that I genuinely wanted to listen”, Arlene tells us. “I had to open myself up to them and say: ‘I want to hear your voice. I’m not from here…I want to include you in everything’.”

Arlene’s classroom is full of examples of listening to her community of children and parents, her “family”. Having taught the class of 2028 from kindergarten – almost four years now – Arlene has been afforded a luxury to build lasting relationships with her pupils that many teachers simply do not have. Undoubtedly, Arlene has used this position to make a huge impact on the lives of her pupils and their parents – the relationships that she has formed with her class and the wider community are evident:

arlene notes

Notes from pupils, parents and colleagues in Arlene’s classroom at KIPP Believe Primary

 However, Arlene insists that this culture of listening had to be embedded from day one in her classroom from a place of “engaging in meaningful discourse”. When Arlene shared her vision for her class with us, she told us that “back then, I wanted to hear and understand their voices as well as my own”.

Whilst Arlene’s high academic expectations of her class are undoubtedly having a positive impact on their learning, it is her pupils’ ability to articulate their own sense of social justice that strikes me as having the most profound impact. There is a culture of listening, and being heard in the class of 2028. When asked what makes her school experience different to her peers, one pupil Keisha tells us, “at my sister’s school…they don’t change the world there”.

 Powerful solutions require collaboration

New Orleans, like London in many respects, is a hub for innovation and has seen the social enterprise field spring into action post-hurricane Katrina. During our time in New Orleans, we visited several social enterprise incubators, including Propeller and 4.0 Schools who are working to support social entrepreneurs, including Teach for America alumni working in innovation for educational reform.

Andre Feigler, Teach for America alum and Founder of EnrichEd (an idea born of a frustration with ‘sub-standard supply teaching’, now working to provide schools and partners with a range of talented professionals to provide enrichment opportunities) sees community engagement as a vital resource for tapping into a rich bank of skills and expertise that can transform pupil experience. “What we need is often right on our doorstep”, Andre tells us, and simply involves “tapping into underutilized local groups of skilled people within the community”. We hear from a panel of Guest Educators at EnrichEd, who explain that collaborating with schools in this way is equally rewarding, including Tank, a poet and stage-renowned singer (born and bred in New Orleans) who tells us that, “I didn’t have anyone who looked like me [at school]. When I step into the classroom, I want to create a space that’s safe, comfortable and creative. Connecting to people from our own cultures, and other cultures, is central to making waves in education.”

4.0 schools NOLA

 EnrichEd Guest Teachers Brother Shack, Aaron and Tank speak to us at 4.0 Schools, along with Harry Schnur (Director, Collective Impact at EnrichEd) and Andre Fiegler, EnrichEd Founder and CEO

 Maggie Riddell, Teach for America Greater New Orleans alum at TrueSchool, shares with us the power of empathy as the bedrock of collaborative solutions in education: “people think that they know the solution because they think that they know the problem. We need to push educators to form solutions from a place of understanding their pupils’ problems and perspectives”.  TrueSchool is an applied research and action design firm partnering with schools and districts in New Orleans to enable innovative educators to redesign classrooms, schools, and systems.

Arlene at KIPP Believe Primary similarly sees her vision for her pupils as a collaborative effort and one based on an understanding of pupil perspective. It’s something that is “always a work in progress [and] always in my pocket; it’s a constant point of discussion and revision with my kids, and with their parents. If they’re not periodically saying to me, ‘This needs to change’ or ‘our vision needs revising’, then I need to ask myself, am I doing enough here? Who do I need to talk to in order to find out?” When confronted with what Arlene calls the ‘brutal facts’ (over 90% of Arlene’s Third Grade class know someone who is incarcerated, homeless or a victim of gun violence), she reflects that “it’s really hard work to do alone and you reach so few that way”. Again, this is a notion that doesn’t seem so complex in theory, but hard to achieve in reality when faced with the burden of everyday administration in teaching. “My vision and why I’m here is what gets me through the hard times. That, and knowing that I’m making a difference by working with them [the parents] and that I’m not alone in this”, Arlene tells us. The parents are both her advocates and her influencers when it comes to creating classroom culture.

Doc was able to provide us with some additional theory on this model of partnership. Every solutions-focussed community needs the following three characters, he tells us:

  1. Influencers
  2. Validators
  3. Advocators

“Identify those people in your neighbourhoods and communities, and get them on the bus. With those people on board, you gonna go places”, he assures us.

Chris Meyer, Greater New Orleans ’04 Alum and former deputy superintendent for the Recovery School District in New Orleans writes that too many educational reformers create “false choice” between getting results and working with the community. Meyer believes that both are possible, but educators being able to elect both community engagement and results hinges on being willing to “dig in and understand what really matters” to the community. “You can’t bring reform to a community; you have to do it with them.” Likewise, Kiera Orange Jones says educators must enter communities not as authorities but as listeners. Perhaps a lesson learnt for many in New Orleans and indeed across the Teach for America alumni network echoes the African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.

“Until the day comes that every child succeeds, our community is not doing enough”.

In response to my original questions about what makes the work that the alumni community in New Orleans do so effective – I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just a movement of people who care passionately about closing the attainment gap working together; it’s the involvement of the whole community that’s enabled this change to happen. Whilst the New Orleans district has made considerable gains in improving pupil outcomes, it has not always been a smooth ride, and there is still a long way to go until the neighbourhoods and communities of New Orleans are working together to eliminate educational disadvantage, or as Mary Laurie said: “until the day comes that every child succeeds, our community is not doing enough”.

Similarly in the UK, we now need to be thinking about who we are ‘inviting to the table’ so that no child’s educational success is limited by how much their parents earn, or where they come from. Whilst we are a powerful community of committed ambassadors and better together than we are in silo, we cannot do this difficult work alone. There are so many communities in South London and beyond, rich in knowledge and ideas about how to make education better that I’m now more excited than ever to get to know better.

Here’s to having fewer ‘drive-by’ conversations and making more ‘pit stops’ in our local communities!


I couldn’t possibly do justice all of the people and places who showed us great hospitability, kindness and trust in welcoming us into their schools and communities during our time in New Orleans. Each and every place we visited provided a point of inspiration or reflection, which simply couldn’t be accounted for in this (very long) blog. A big round of applause for making it this far!

Bonabell NOLA

’12 Teach for America alumni Lucy Scholz (far left) and Torey Haywood (far right) welcome Teach First staff and ambassadors to Bonabell Magnet Academy High School, Kenner.

 However, I’d like to make brief shout-outs of acknowledgement to all of the people and places who made this visit and our experiences possible, including:

Teach for America Greater New Orleans

‘The Krewe’
Renard and Rene Casimere
Jamar McNeeley
Mary Laurie
Dr. Payne
Dr. Eric Jones
Elliot Sanchez (mSchools)
Collegiate Academies
ReNEW Accelerated
New Schools for New Orleans
Edna Karr High School
KIPP Believe Primary
Sylvanie Williams Prep Elementary
4.0 Schools
Youth Run NOLA
Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School
Firstline Schools

green yard nolasci nolalouis armstrong nola

Samuel J. Green School’s Edible Schoolyard, corridor displays at Sci Collegiate Academy, and Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans

 If you would like to find out more about what our group of ambassadors and staff will be doing to make sure that we’re sharing and developing our learning beyond our visit to New Orleans, please get in touch. We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions about how we can continue this conversation with you. 


One thought on “A seat at the table: key learning on community in New Orleans

  1. Pingback: Whose vision is it anyway? | Education Matters

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