New Schools for New Orleans
In Dominique Walker’s class this year, the students wore crowns.
Crowns made of paper and decorated by the children in conjunction with a picture book they read. But Walker, who teaches kindergarten at KIPP Leadership Primary (KLP), also sees them as a metaphor.
“You always have a crown on your head, even when you don’t,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, you’re never too young to help other people. We just let them know that they’re special, and just work on that identity affirmation,” she says.
Walker wants her kindergarteners to feel empowered, strong, and ready to take on the world. Part of that means getting to know the world right around their school building, which is on St. Claude Avenue. Walker teaches students about New Orleans history and culture.
“From the beginning of the year, we started checking out ways for them to learn about Gentilly, and Pontchartrain Park, and the Seventh Ward,” she says. “All the rich history that’s just literally all around our school in itself where we’re located.”
“We’ve learned about A.P. Tureaud. We’ve learned about the Zulu Club, we’ve learned about many of the social aid and pleasure clubs. We’ve talked about the environment and how Claiborne Avenue used to look very different,” she says.
When students learn about role models like Tureaud, Walker is careful to make a leader’s path seem possible.
“All these people you learn about, they were also young,” she tells them. “They also started somewhere.”
Students made their own shoe-box dioramas of examples of Black and African heritage in New Orleans’ culture and architecture. Walker says that part of what students need to learn in kindergarten is a sense that school is a place they belong. It’s not just about getting the basics for math and reading, but understanding that school is a comfortable, fun, and welcoming place to be.
For Walker, this can have a powerful ripple effect. She feels frustrated with what can be a negative public dialogue around New Orleans’ students.
“You really must focus on the positive, because these kids are the future. So, if you don’t like what’s going on in the city, really the way to change that is to give children the education they need and these loving, fun experiences,” she says. “So, it means a lot to me to sometimes step away from the content and give them opportunities to learn about each other, and learn about their history, and just have fun.”
Walker builds in opportunities to have fun throughout the school year, not just when students are learning about local history. They have a weekly Friday celebration that ties into whatever they are learning about. In the spring, when they were learning about colors, they made tie-dye t-shirts.
“Really seeing them in those moments is the most joyous thing for me,” Walker says. “A lot of times, play gets cut. And for a kindergartener, playing is really important to their communication, and their sharing, and their social skills.”
Walker’s ability to build this type of joyful, productive environment comes from training, experience, and mentorship.
She hadn’t planned on becoming a teacher. She arrived at Xavier University of Louisiana in 2009 from Los Angeles, California, with the intention of being a doctor. She found she wasn’t feeling passionate about the classes, and she came from a family of educators, so she decided to try that path. She loved the first education class she took.
“From there on I never looked back. It was never a second guess about what I was going to do.”