By Edwin Buggage
Education and Success in Post-Katrina New Orleans
In Post-Katrina New Orleans, the educational system is being reformed where the rates of success are as of today mixed. For all know we there is a correlation between educational attainment and success in life and education is the bridge to a better quality of life. When we look at African-American young people through the distorted lens of the mainstream media one can see on a daily basis negative images of young Black people leaving one with a pessimistic view of where those who would lead the City in the future come from.
The fact is these are more myths than facts in these cases as most young people even those who have less resources do not commit crime. Additionally, parents across the economic strata care about their kids and value education. In educational circles there’s been much talk concerning the achievement gap along racial and economic lines; but I would argue that the real problem is the aspiration gap and because of historical barriers some suffer from the affliction of low or limited aspirations. This is something that could be remedied with the right resources and support systems in place where all students can thrive and reach their full potential regardless of their zip code.
International High School of New Orleans and their Commitment to Excellence
This is something that The International High School of New Orleans is doing; taking kids and helping them aspire to reach higher.
The story of Darrin Francois, a student at the school who recently made National News for being accepted into at the time of the stories 83 universities. I thought the coverage was great but felt that this incredible accomplishment needed to be told by Data News Weekly. That we as the “People’s Paper” should celebrate this young man and his great accomplishment.
I then reached out to the school’s CEO/Head of School, Sean Wilson and the Principal, Adierah Berger. During our conversation, Ms. Berger informed me there are many high achieving students at the school and I should talk to some of them as well.
On the day I went to the school that’s located on Carondelet Street in downtown New Orleans I heard the clanking sounds of the St. Charles Streetcar in the background. I entered the building and sat in the office eventually being led into a room by Ms. Berger where I met Darrin Francois and two other students Grace Clark and Tarrielle Strader. Little did I know at the time that I would find myself during this interview beaming with pride, fighting back tears of joy and thinking that our future as a people is bright as I spoke with these intelligent, ambitious and thoughtful young people.
Preparing for greatness
As I began to talk with the three young people seated in a room with several long tables armed with binders full of acceptance letters from colleges spanning all regions in the U.S. and also Canada and Europe.
The group all knew each other from honors classes and their years together at the school. There is an obvious camaraderie among the group as they laugh, smile and sometimes interject their thoughts about the questions I ask. This is less of an interview in the formal sense and more of a conversation.
Tarrielle, who came to the school after her family moved from Missouri, begins with a mix of shyness and confidence as she begins turning the pages of her binder saying she’s been accepted into 23 colleges, “UNO, LSU, Missouri Western, Milsaps, Tuskegee,” naming a few of the schools she’s been accepted into. “The schools I applied to are ones that I mostly checked out for the majors I am interested in and that is Business Administration or Mechanical Engineering.”
Grace is seated in the middle of the Tarrielle and Darrin, she is the most talkative of the group. She is articulate and thoughtful. “I was accepted into 23 schools 24 if you count a program I was accepted into for computer science.” She then begins speaking of some of the colleges she’s received acceptance letters from. “The top colleges I am considering are LSU, University of Kings which is in Canada and The American University of Paris in France.” She is interested in studying either Computer Science or Experimental or Organizational Psychology, and full of ambition believes she may pursue them both.
Darrin is a young man who is soft spoken, and his words are few and measured for maximum impact. At the time of the interview the number of his college acceptance letters had risen from 83 to 90. His tone was one of humility, but one whose confidence rang through as he’s embracing his amazing accomplishment that bring him all this attention. “It feels surreal, I just began applying to schools and I did not expect to get accepted into all of them.” With a binder that looks like a semester full of study notes he has been accepted into schools ranching from HBCU’s like Tuskegee, Benedict and Morehouse to schools across the nation such as Eastern Michigan, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, University of Maine, Farmington. He will be graduating in the top 10 of his class and plan to study Political Science with a minor in Criminal justice, speaking of his long-term career goals he says, “I want to be a judge. I see myself fixing things and making order.”
Expanding the Lenses of Possibility
The school and its team led by the vision of the School’s CEO, Sean Wilson and the Principal, Adierah Berger and a dedicated staff offering support including study trips abroad that gives them experiences that expands their lenses of possibility for their lives. “We do have a good amount of foreign exchange students that come here from countries in Latin America and Asia, we have a diverse student population including teachers and staff members from Morocco and China and Europe who talk about their experiences,” says Grace of the benefits of attending The International High School of New Orleans. “It gets you interested and you see the differences and you make friends with people from other countries and you keep in touch with them. Because of this, you become interested in life outside New Orleans. This schools makes you curious about it and you begin to reach out to embrace it on your own.”
It Takes a Village
We talk about how their families feel about their great accomplishments. All of them say that their families are happy for them and have always supported them throughout their lives. And as the hopes of most parents to push their kids to greater success theirs are examples of this.
“My mom is very happy for me especially since I have two older brothers and only one of them went to college. She is glad that I am able to have the experience or actually be able to get accepted into a bunch of universities. My family is very supportive, not just my Mom, but my extended family and so many others who have helped me along the way,” states Tarrielle.
“My Mom is one of those bragging mothers, so when I got into these schools she was like I expected that” Grace says with a laugh. “She expected it from me and I expected it from myself. They have a lot of faith in me sometimes more than I have in myself.”
She says of continuing to reach higher and the support she gets from her family, “I have one older brother and he went to a technical college, so he has a degree in Carpentry and my Mom has been to only 2-year university, so I am the first one in my family to go to a four-year college. They want me to continue to grow; they encourage me despite some of the financial challenges of going to some of the schools I’ve been accepted to, saying why don’t you go to Paris for college. They want me to branch out and come back with new experiences. I feel like a bird being pushed out of the nest.”
Darrin says of the support of his family, “I have always been supported by my family and they want me to grow and my Mom and all those around me are proud, so I want to continue to grow and be a better person not just for myself but for society, and that is why I want to study Political Science and become a Judge. I want to be able to contribute in a positive way giving the same kind of support that’s been given to me.”
One of the most disappointing things that happens in the Black community sometimes is the self-inflicted wounds of low expectations or putting limitations on what you can do. That the psychological shackles are sometimes still there, and some do not believe they can spread their wings and soar with the eagles.
“I don’t like bosses or being average. I like ideas of what it means to being different because it defies what it means to be a girl, or from New Orleans or people in the south,” says Grace. “People sometimes ask why do I need to leave the country or go to different schools why wouldn’t I have options.”
As a young Black Male there’s bias and prejudices that exists, but today what was once a mountain to climb, is now only a speedbump to success as evidenced by Darrin and many young men like him. Explaining this fact, he says, “They don’t see men of color pushing themselves to be better, they see them on the streets on the corner being locked up or dead in the grave. There are a lot of young males like myself who strive for greatness. My friend Sylvester he is a great Fashion Designer made his own tux. And so many others who listen to their parents getting good grades and having goals. I appreciate the attention that has been given to me but there are a lot of other Black males that are doing the right things and are destined for greatness.”
While Darrin is talking Grace adds, “Black excellence is my favorite type of excellence. I love to see Black people do things that are not normal. I love to see them do things that are not standard and do things people don’t expect us to do. It makes me so happy that my people are doing great things. It disappoints me that my people sometimes do the bear minimum not because they can’t do better, but because they don’t try. We can achieve everything anyone else can and you don’t have to stay where people see you. That is what I hope my classmates and I can inspire in others.”
Graduation Day and the Next Chapter
This is a milestone for these talented young people and when asked how they will feel as they put on their cap and gowns and walk across the stage how they think they will feel on their big day. Tarrielle, tears up and says, I will cry, “It will be a bittersweet and joyful moment. I have accomplished a lot in my few years of living and this to date is my greatest accomplishment of what I hope will be many more. My family is coming, my brothers who I have not seen in a while are coming with their families and it’s going to be amazing and I am going to cry.”
Grace chimes in saying, “I have pre-cried and will cry at the ceremony. It will be happiness and bitter sadness we have going though helping each other for moral support because most of us takes honors classes together. We all made it together and for my family to be there for 18 years of my life it’s going to be amazing. Some of my classmates I may never see again, but I am going to be happy because I know we are all moving on to do bigger and better things with our lives.”
Darrin echoes that it will be a bitter sweet moment. “I am going to be happy and sad because I am graduating with my best friend and she is going to stay in Louisiana to go to school and I probably will not. I am excited thinking of having people from all over City of New Orleans at my graduation. Me being in the top 10, I might even second-line,” he says as they all laugh.
These young people embody the best of what New Orleans is and they are an inspiration for all of us and it was amazing spending time with them, talking, reflecting and laughing. I beamed pride listening to these young people discuss their lives and aspirations and at some points even shedding a few tears of joy. Leaving this interview, I walked out unto Carondelet witnessing the St. Charles streetcar passing and the sounds of the wheels rolling along the rails. I felt at peace inside smiling knowing that as we pass the baton to the next generation that we will be okay as a community with these types of young people leading us. With them at the helm we are destined to do even greater things as they contribute to the City, nation and the world.