Questions We’re Working to Answer in New Orleans

By Richard Barth, Chief Executive Officer, KIPP Foundation

A week ago today I shared with the KIPP Team and Family the incredible resolve I witnessed during my time in New Orleans. Today, I want to share with this broader group an update that I have worked on with Rhonda Aluise, our KIPP New Orleans Executive Director. In it, we seek to address the key questions this kind of tragic event raises for our team in the city, as well as some questions all of us who work in education may be asking in the wake of these events.

To learn more about the recent events in New Orleans, click here to read the note Rhonda Aluise shared last week on our blog.


Over the past week, we have received a number of questions from folks regarding recent events – these questions range from fundamental concerns about our mission to more tactical inquiries about safety and the mental health supports available to our team and family. This document represents our attempt to begin answering some of these questions. While this document is by no means a definitive answer to all of these questions, it is an initial attempt to provide information in response to the events of the past week, to explain how we can and should respond in the near-term, and to discuss where we might go moving forward.

Do recent events raise fundamental questions about our mission or vision?

Our vision is that one day every child in New Orleans has the opportunity to go to a school that is preparing them for success in life.

Our mission is to build a high-performing network of schools that prepares thousands of New Orleans children for success in college and the competitive world, and in so doing, inspire and support the efforts of educators across the city as they seek to build other great schools to provide these same opportunities.

What we and many of our colleagues across the city have accomplished over the past six years has created a beacon of hope and provided a huge source of optimism for citizens all across our city. The educational options for children in New Orleans are better today than they were a decade ago.

The tragedies of the past couple of months certainly raise questions that we must think about as an organization. There is no doubt that many of our city’s systems are fundamentally broken and that we have an opportunity to potentially influence some of those systems.  The questions that are raised are as much about how we realize our mission as they are about the mission itself. For us, college remains the game-changer for our kids that can ultimately transform their lives so they are not always playing catch-up to a culture of violence.

The local public education reform effort is already making a significant impact in this area. This spring, three charter high schools that started after the storm enrolled 250 graduates in college. Before the storm, it would have been unthinkable that a public high school in the city would send 125 kids to college in a given year. When we think about a better New Orleans, we think about a city where kids have the opportunity to realize their dreams and a city where safety and violence prevention programs aren’t the first thing we think about as needs for our kids. The long-term solution to our problems is education. We must remain steadfast in our belief in our mission and our role as the leaders of the most important challenge facing our city.

As we think about how we realize our mission, it is fair to think about how we educate our kids. However, these events in no way undermine our deeply felt conviction that a great education is the key to a life of choices and personal freedom. And, we are convinced that the city of New Orleans will be an even greater city a decade from now thanks to the investments in education that all of us are making today.

What can and should we demand of others here in New Orleans?

The events of the last few weeks have many members of our team and family wondering whether others in this city can or should be doing more for our KIPPsters and for all New Orleans kids. Tragic as these events have been, they have opened our eyes to the brutal realities that many New Orleans children wake up to everyday. Many of us now feel even more responsibility to advocate on behalf of young people everywhere. As part of our internal discussions this week and next, we will ask what additional demands we need to make of ourselves, of our students and families, and of our city’s government in order to combat this problem. We stated loudly and clearly at our Peace Vigil last week that we are a large, influential network in this city, and we understand that we can leverage this in order to demand a better tomorrow for our students and families.

Should we consider more radical means of keeping our students out of harm’s way?

It is all too understandable that members of our New Orleans team and family are asking whether we should consider more radical ways to keep our students safe. Should we have dorms? Should we organize summer activities? Should we advocate to city leaders that we need a city-wide curfew for students under the age of 18?

Over the coming weeks, we will collectively consider what adjustments to our plan, if any, are required in light of these recent events. Right now, though, we have three thoughts that we would like to share with you.

  • First, given the degree to which we are emotionally charged right now, we all need to acknowledge that making big decisions is a risky undertaking at this moment in time.
  • Second, in the days ahead, we will set up a formal venue for members of our team and family to share their ideas and suggestions regarding how we can better ensure the safety of our KIPPsters. Specifically, on tomorrow, May 10th, all school-level teams will engage in dialogue to generate ideas to inform our strategy around safety, advocacy, mental health, and our broader role in our community moving forward. These ideas will then be collected and used to inform our regional strategy on these topics moving forward.
  • Third, it is most important that we remind ourselves that we came to KIPP with a shared belief that creating and building great schools that are preparing students for success in college and in life is the most influential way to change a child’s life path. We have signed up for a long-term, sustained effort. Nothing about the events of the last few weeks should undermine our conviction that we are on a successful path to meeting our aspiration.

What are we doing to provide our teachers, support staff, and school leaders with counseling and mental health supports?

We began this work recognizing that we were making a long-term commitment to our kids and to the city of New Orleans. The events of the past few months have put many of our people under a great deal of stress.  Ensuring that our teachers, staff, and school leaders are mentally and emotionally prepared to empower our students as they climb the mountain to college is foundational to our ability to realize transformational change in New Orleans.

Therefore, we have taken the following steps to ensure that our people are receiving the mental health support that they need in this time of crisis:

  • All teachers, staff, and school leaders have access to five sessions with a therapist for individual counseling. All costs associated with these five visits are being covered by KIPP. Moving forward, we will offer group sessions at schools in need to provide ongoing support to staff members.
  • Our school leaders are also creating and providing ongoing opportunities for whole-staff discussions to reflect on the events of the past several months and to share their thoughts and feelings with each other. We are also considering whether such discussion should be made more permanent, perhaps on a once-per-week basis between now and the end of the school year.
  • We have invited Deedrah Harp from KIPP Houston to provide counseling and guidance to our school leaders and social workers so that our caretakers are better equipped to meet the needs of our students and staff.

Moving forward, we recognize that the mental health resources available to support our adults through crises like this may not be sufficient to meet the demand. Over the coming weeks, we will seek to identify what additional capacity is needed in this regard and how we can assure that our faculty and staff has access to such care.

What are we doing to meet the mental health needs of our students?

In each school that has been directly affected by these tragic events, we have taken the following steps to provide our students with the emotional and mental health supports that they need to keep climbing the mountain to college:

  • On-site crisis response teams were deployed to each affected school to provide coaching and guidance to our instructional staff and one-on-one support to our students that need to speak about what they are experiencing, thinking and feeling. These teams first met with school leaders to determine which classrooms were in need of intervention. The goals of classroom intervention were as follows: (1) relay the facts, (2) review physical and emotional reactions to impress upon the students that whatever it is they are feeling is “normal”, (3) identify healthy ways to cope, and (4) identify individuals at school, home and in the community who can be used as supports. Furthermore, the names of students who may need additional support were also identified, so that they could receive additional one-on-one or small group counseling.
  • Given the magnitude of the crisis that our community is working through, we have had to call upon a number of external partners to help us meet the immediate needs of our students. The community response to help us has been inspiring. Over the past week, a number of organizations have offered to assist our incredible KIPP New Orleans Schools Mental Health team, including: the Children’s Bureau, Tulane University’s Psychology Program, Communities in Schools and the Charter School Social Work Network, RSD, NOPS, LSU Health Sciences, LA Support Services and Project Fleur de Lis from the Mercy Family Center.
  • Moving forward, we will work closely to identify students who need additional supports to cope with the tragedies over the past couple of months. While some students are ready to move forward, we also recognize that there will be students who need additional supports. School social workers will work closely with teachers to identify these students and coordinate additional supports to ensure they are receiving the mental health support they need.

What are we doing to ensure that our students feel safe at school?

At the core of any great KIPP school is a sense of security – both emotionally and physically – among our students and staff. For that reason, we must first be able to answer the following question: do we have any reason to believe that those perpetrating violence in our city are intentionally targeting KIPP students?

Based on everything we have discovered to this point, the answer is no.

Violence is all too present in this city, and more than a dozen children have lost their lives to gun violence in this school year alone. As a reminder to us all, while KIPP began with a single school in New Orleans in 2007, we now serve over 2,400 students in nine schools across this city, and will serve 800 additional students this fall. In fact, 1,155 of the RSD’s 11,860 students in 5th through 8th grades attend one of our schools, meaning that we serve 10% of all middle school students in the Recovery School District. Recent tragic events have reminded us that we are an essential part of the fabric of New Orleans, and we are not immune from the violence that is all too prevalent in our community.

In the immediate term, we have asked the New Orleans Police Department to provide extra security detail at both Believe and Central City Academy. We believe it is important that our families and children see this visible presence as they enter these campuses in the morning and leave in the afternoon. Further, in the days ahead, we will create opportunities for students to admit when they’re not feeling safe, and what it would take for us to make them feel safer.

Looking ahead, there are some obvious areas where we need to focus our efforts:

  • Just as we make it clear to our KIPPsters that working your hardest is key to staying on the path to college, we also need to be absolutely explicit about the steps that they need to take to keep themselves safe when they are not at school.
  • Specifically, this means avoiding altercations at all costs, diffusing tense situations, and most importantly, making sure that they are at home before dark every night.
  • We also need to continue to make it clear, to our students and our families, that KIPP’s belief in being nice matters as much when it comes to social media, as it does during real-world conversations.

Up until this point, our KIPPsters in New Orleans have been able to go to school each morning feeling safe. These recent events increase the probability that some of our KIPPsters are worried about their physical safety when not inside our buildings. It is important that our schools continue to explore ways to keep our kids safe outside of school and to send the message that carrying weapons or even having access to weapons increases the risk of real personal harm.

Closing Thoughts

The events over the past few months have tested our resolve in ways that are unimaginable. As we think about our role, our impact, and our future, it is important that we remember the hope families have in us to put their kids on a path that hasn’t before existed for kids in New Orleans. Because of that hope, it is essential that no matter how difficult our questions or no matter how extensively we grapple with our role, we must remember the power of our Team and Family to impact the lives of our kids and the community we serve. In the face of such poignant challenges, we have a special opportunity to change our city and help our kids realize the dreams that all kids share. Together, our voices have strength, hope, and power. We look forward to engaging as we continue to build a better tomorrow for our kids.