This year, NPR Ed is reporting on the dramatic changes in the New Orleans school system.
Whitman Wilcox V attended kindergarten through second grade at a neighborhood public school in the Lower Ninth Ward. He had just started the third grade when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. His family was forced to evacuate; he wound up at a Catholic school in Houston.
Back in New Orleans the next fall, he switched to a brand-new charter school, KIPP Believe, for fifth through 8th grade; started high school at another charter school, Sci Academy; then was homeschooled for a year.
Now, he’s beginning his senior year of high school. This time at St. Augustine, an all-boys Catholic school famed throughout the region for its marching band.
Five schools in nine years. A generation of children who’ve lived through the storm and recovery have traced educational odysseys like this one.
Wilcox is luckier than some: Throughout these transitions he and his two younger brothers have had solid support from his family. His parents run Wilcox Academy of Early Learning, a highly regarded day care and preschool in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood.
Now, he’s looking ahead to college and his future.
I met him on a visit to the city last month to report on the schools, and he skipped a day of football tryouts to talk with me.
The New Orleans public schools didn’t have the best reputation pre-Katrina. What was your experience like at Jean Gordon Elementary School?
That was my favorite school. Learning was fun there. It wasn’t a job to learn. I was excited to get up and go to another day of school. I liked spending time with my friends, my teachers, picking up new things and showing them to my parents. Teachers approached learning like a game, made it something I can relate to. Now they just give me the information — you get it, you get it, you don’t, you don’t.
When you came back from Houston after the storm, you attended KIPP Believe in middle school. What was that like?
I think KIPP was the best school I attended because it was fertile. It had me embrace learning. I actually wanted to learn more and more. Plus, I kept trying to get on the lacrosse team. I was in the band. We went to Disney World. Even on Saturdays we would go and do community service somewhere, painting somebody’s fence.
KIPP is known for its strong school culture and strict rules like SPARK — asking people to constantly Sit up straight, Pay attention, Ask and answer questions, React to show you’re following along, and Keep tracking the speaker. What did you think about that?
I remember SPARK! It kind of gave you a standard, a bar you had to meet. It wasn’t necessarily just the body position. It’s kind of just like, you’re trying to become the perfect student. You’re striving to be that perfect student.
I noticed you smiling when you talked about that. Why?
What else do you remember about the KIPP experience?
Mr. [Adam] Meinig [the principal], he hardwired us. He got into our mind. It started at the summer enrichment program before fifth grade.
He made a personal connection with me, and I’m pretty sure everyone else. I really did not want to disappoint him. And that gave me a drive to do better and a motivation.
And he gave us a Christmas book — you know the one about the kid who didn’t believe in Christmas? With the train?
Yes. There’s this part at the end of the movie where they ask, “Can you hear the bell?” [At the end of the movie, Santa leaves a magic bell that can only be heard by children and those “who truly believe.”]
He took a bell and cut out the little piece so you couldn’t hear anything and started shaking it. And everybody goes crazy, screaming, like, “It’s too loud!”
I understood it: He was asking, “Do I believe?”
Wow. So then, after you graduated from KIPP, you went to Sci Academy. But after a semester at Sci, you weren’t doing too well. Your parents took you and your brother out of school for homeschooling with a small group of other parents and kids. What was that like?
With home school, the social environment was so controlled. I was the oldest in the group by several years. I lost many friends.
Sounds like a big adjustment. What about when you came back?
For the first part of ninth grade, I was still in the middle-school mindset. When I came back, everyone had grown up.
Because of citywide school choice, students are traveling large distances all over New Orleans to get to school. They’re switching schools more often, schools close almost every year, and sometimes siblings don’t go to school together. Now that you’re a teenager, how does that affect you socially when you go to a new school?
It didn’t affect me like I thought it would. I find new friends and sometimes I can get my old friends’ numbers from my new friends. You text people. Or you can find people on Instagram.
What about, you know, hanging out in real life?
I can’t hang with some of my friends. They live in Harvey, the West Bank [suburbs]. One or two live Uptown and a lot live in the East [New Orleans East, several miles away]. People don’t hang out in the neighborhood. We go to Movies, Lazer Tag, Paintball, NOLA Motorsports. The mall. We might go by somebody’s house, but it has to be planned.
What’s it like now that you’re at St. Augustine’s?
It is very exciting because I enjoy the extracurriculars. It was well-known for its football team and its band before I knew it was a really good academic school.
You’re in the marching band?
And trying to make the football team?
He doesn’t call it a tryout, but he says that people that make the team decide that on their own. If you don’t quit, you’re going to know you’re on the team.
It can be challenging but rewarding, because you feel that sense of brotherhood. Academically you have to be present to obtain the knowledge. If you’re just there and you’re not actually participating in class, you won’t understand.
How do you think it affected you, going to so many different schools?
I think I got a benefit, because I got to work and socialize with multiple types of people — people who are going to be really successful, and people who are not going to do too much with their lives.
So you have both positive and negative examples.
Exactly. I’ve experienced more than the average person would have if they stayed with one school.
But I think there’s some negativity. From what my counselors are saying, it can hurt you when you’re trying to apply for colleges.
So what’s your overall verdict on the school system in New Orleans? Is it better the way it is now, or was it better before?
It’s better to have it how it is now, because the school in your neighborhood might not be up to par. You might need to go a few miles a way to get a quality education.
I’m guessing that you’re one of those people who plans to do something with your life. What’s your goal?
Tuskegee or Mississippi State U. to be a vet, or a RN or physical therapist. I’m trying to get it down to one of those.