This is the first in a two part post by Bing Howell.
It was December 18, 2014. It had been a long, challenging and rewarding few weeks for everyone on the New Schools for Baton Rouge team, but Celerity Lanier students and staff had worked tirelessly on what they bragged would be a version of the Nutcracker unlike any we had ever seen – and we had to see what it was all about. As we approached the school, we were amazed.
A school that was challenged to get families into the building last year had bumper to bumper traffic three blocks down as parents, family members, and community members were also curious about this debut of The Urban Nutcracker. We entered the gymnasium to find standing room only. The room came to a whisper as the lights dimmed, and students brought us on a journey of exploration from China to Africa and through the Americas. These elementary school students were poised with confidence around the cultures they were representing, and the embodiment of all of this in song and dance. As little Clara, one of the protagonists in the play, reached the end of her dream, the audience couldn’t help but burst out of their seats for a standing ovation that couldn’t be silenced. I was elated and couldn’t help but remember this is exactly why I came to Baton Rouge.
First, what has been most inspiring to me about Baton Rouge’s opportunity is that this effort has been and can continue to be community led. Chris Meyer, our CEO, has been a friend of mine since we started the Broad Residency together in 2010. I considered him a thought partner in providing helpful perspectives with a number of initiatives I managed in Tennessee and New Jersey. When Chris moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, he shared the great opportunity that existed in the city. Baton Rouge has a concentration of students who were disproportionally in underperforming schools, yet there was a community that demanded better. Pastors, parents, business leaders, and other community members got together and created a community compact that defined what they wanted in great schools. This demand significantly influenced the launch of New Schools for Baton Rouge, an organization that exists to provide the community with what it asked for to support its youth.
There are a number of comprehensive district and city education reforms taking place across the country. Some initiatives are developed by districts; while some are developed by state agencies or city government. The work happening in our city today was informed by the community of North Baton Rouge, and because of this, I believe there are no limits in what we can achieve.
Not only is the Baton Rouge community at the forefront of this work, but the idea of ‘community’ is at it’s most inclusive: civic, business, families, and faith leaders all aligning in this effort. The story of New Schools for Baton Rouge’s origin resonated with every bone in my body. The African Proverb of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has always been, to me, the most sustainable way to enable long-term academic and personal growth for youth anywhere, but especially those in economically challenged neighborhoods and schools. Parents and families need to be pulled in and leveraged as experts in knowing and supporting their kids. Churches, community organizations, businesses and civic leaders need to partner with schools and families to support as needed while also creating the ecosystem that will enable a strong educational environment. I have seen a number of neighborhoods and cities acknowledge this need. I have seen very few of them able to align themselves enough to create a space where great schools can be at the center of this ecosystem.
When I first came to Baton Rouge to meet with Chris, I talked with a number of people from these different groups, and although they talked from very different perspectives, they were all able to share that education was central to the growth of the city, a sense of inclusivity to who was running the school (so long as they led to student growth), and the role their organization was playing in being able to make that happen. In all my years of working in education – across 4 countries and now 5 states – I have never experienced such acute alignment.