By Towana Pierre-Floyd, Fisher Fellow, KIPP New Orleans Schools
I am a product of New Orleans—sustained by its music, nourished by its charm and educated by its public schools. I proudly wear the mark of the many of teachers who nurtured my potential. They gave me the opportunity to travel, sparking my love of the world.
With support from my family and my teachers, I traveled to the Rocky Mountains as a member of a Geology excursion. There, I struggled to breathe in high altitudes so wildly different from New Orleans, below sea level. I pushed my body to the brink by climbing mountains and white water rafting, and learned that I can achieve anything.
I was also given the opportunity to travel to San Francisco and Atlanta as a Youth Radio representative. There, I learned that there are kids all over the country with whom I shared much, yet whose varied experiences and perspectives enriched me. I learned that my voice matters and that I have an important story to tell.
The most impactful opportunity of all was the chance to travel to Ghana at 17 years old. Just going through the process of getting a passport was enlightening; my experience in Ghana itself changed my life. The first night we were served a dish that was so much like New Orleans jambalaya, my taste buds couldn’t tell the difference. Through this experience and others, I realized that so much of what I value of home has its roots in Africa. I stood in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, and recognized that the world was simultaneously bigger and smaller than I could have imagined.
My experience as a New Orleans public school student was transformative, but it stood in stark contrast to that of many around me who did not have the same opportunities to travel the world. I was keenly aware of the benefits to me and knew that they too deserved these opportunities.
As a KIPP Fisher Fellow, I am preparing to found an Early College Academy at KIPP Renaissance High School, a school meant to provide these opportunities to students starting in 9th grade. Incoming 9th graders at KIPP Renaissance will have the option to enter our school, where they can begin earning college credit starting their sophomore year. We focus on preparing our students to enter college with an edge through an intense focus on values like excellence, global perspective and self-identity.
We are designing a school where excellence means students have the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. With up to 60 college credits in their pockets, students can be immersed in the college experience before even leaving high school.
In planning for our school, we recognize that college credits alone don’t move students to persist through college. Our students live in a global society, and exposure to the world outside our city can enrich their worldview while deepening their understanding of their hometown. Beyond offering a rigorous college-prep education, our school will give students the opportunity to travel that I had, but that all too many of my peers did not.
We will offer annual trips, both domestic and international, and the students will be in the driver’s seat. They’ll develop itineraries so that they can learn how to plan and execute something they’re excited about. By fundraising and applying for grants, they’ll gain communications skills and learn about the financial aspects of travel.
Acquisition of language will be another major focus. New Orleans has a rich history with Spanish, French, and West African languages, so we will prioritize offering those languages to start. Then we’ll explore blended learning through programs like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone to offer students even more choices for language study.
Students will connect what they’re learning in their literature, history and language classes with their own history and heritage. Ultimately, our students will be taught that they are the next generation of great New Orleanians like Lucien Victor Alexis, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Mahalia Jackson and Israel Augustine, Jr. Our school will honor these legends through our house system, where students work in groups named after these historical figures and dedicated to specific fields of study. In these houses, students will help to create rituals and traditions built around their namesakes’ values and accomplishments.
My travels as a student helped shape the person I am today. My travels as a Fisher Fellow have helped to shape the leader I will be next school year. Each residency visit, Fisher intersession and iteration of the school design plan makes this vision sharper. I can’t wait to realize this vision with the incredible students of New Orleans next year.