Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Public Education Success Story in New Orleans -- Wright in My Neighborhood!

Finally! I finally remembered to post pictures of the Sophie B. Wright Charter School marching band!

These pictures were taken on Super Bowl Sunday during the King Arthur parade.

It's difficult to describe how proud I am of these young people and their adult sponsors. If you check out the above link to a recent Times-Picayune article about the school's journey, you might come to appreciate the obstacles thrown into the school's path since 2001. You might also come to understand how Katrina's devastation and aftermath might have been the genesis of the good things going on in education in New Orleans: when the slate is wiped clean, there are no more "lines" inside of which the system must color.

After Katrina, and liberated by the designation of her school as a "charter" affiliated with one of our universities, Wright's no-nonsense Principal chose traditional values and discipline as the foundation for her re-molded school. She rounded up a phenomenal faculty and staff, and recruited not only highly-performing students, but also parents whom she knew to be both interested and committed to raising and educating good citizens who will become contributing members of society. Not a bad equation.

When we first moved to this neighborhood in 1999, Sophie Wright was a mess -- what you envision as a typical inner-city junior high with slovenly-attired, foul-mouthed students that walked to school or jumped off the bus early, leaving littering and looting in their wake. I choose to forget how many times the cars were vandalized, or how many plants were ripped out by the roots, or how many things "disappeared" from our wrought-iron-fenced-and-gated yard, or what unpleasantly foul words I heard wafting loudly through the air as school opened or closed. Many was the day I tried to get through by phone to the office to report wandering students or a fight among them taking place at our corner. Rarely was the phone answered.

That doesn't happen anymore, or at least it doesn't happen where the neighborhood is made keenly aware of it.

We sensed the beginnings of change in the fall of 2006 or spring of 2007. Still a little gun-shy (pardon the pun) about the neighborhood's darling children, we kept a close eye on them as they traveled to and from school. One afternoon, a young girl -- probably no older than 12 or 13 -- was being cruelly taunted by a small group of young men as they headed home on foot. She took all she could take and picked up a brick, eyeing them as targets. Pepper happened to be puttering in the yard and yelled at the young men to leave her alone and to clean up their language -- they all took off, lickety-split, and he thought maybe, once again, he should try to report the incident, not expecting to have much success as past experience suggested. He called the office and someone answered the phone, even though school had been dismissed for the day! He deemed it a refreshing experience as he gave a description of the events and kids involved, but thought that would probably be the end of it.

Not so.

Ten minutes or so later, a man wearing the uniform of Sophie Wright's faculty and staff appeared at the gate with a clipboard and the young people in tow. He politely introduced himself and showed appropriate identification as a member of the Sophie Wright team and asked Pepper to recount what he had observed. Flabbergasted, Pepper re-told his tale, identifying the players along the way. Then, you could have knocked him over with a feather when the Wright faculty member exacted an apology from the kids to one another and to Pepper, and he promised that their parents would be informed and the students disciplined. To be honest, we were a little fearful of retribution, but nothing ever happened, and those students minded their manners thereafter when passing through the neighborhood. At least they did in front of our house!

Since that time, the appearance of the campus has been brightened and beautified by groups of students, staff, and parents working together. The academic performance of the school as a whole has measurably improved. Activity is going on at the school all the time, keeping its students engaged in creative, wholesome pursuits. And I'm no longer secretly afraid of the neighborhood students.

To me, the marching band is the public face of Sophie Wright's success. We listen each year as the band starts from scratch, practicing in the schoolyard, sometimes wondering if they will ever all play the same notes at the same time. But, they work -- they work hard, putting in long hours -- and they succeed in coming together. Their band director and chaperones work hard, too, and should share in the glow of success, knowing that they have probably changed these children's lives forever, for the better.

This year, the band began practicing for the parades by circling the block while playing or dancing. Part of their training is learning to concentrate through the din of cheering parade-watchers. Pepper and I tried to help them out by standing outside and clapping as they pass, or honking a car horn in rhythm to the beat. They did as instructed and concentrated on their performances -- for the most part. We spied quite a number of surreptitious peeks in our direction, accompanied by shy, satisfied grins. But, who can fault them?

The last few years during Carnival, entrepreneurial booster groups (including non-band students) have opened the school during weekend parades, selling really good (donated) food prepared in the cafeteria, secure parking spots in the schoolyard, and use of clean restrooms. That's teaching by example, I'd say.

The proceeds go, among other places, to the purchase of those dazzling uniforms and instruments you see pictured above, and to outfitting the spirit groups for the Warriors. I've even kicked in a few donations myself.

Sophie Wright was everywhere this Carnival season, showing off their hard work and doing their beaming mentors proud. We were proud of them, too.

Sophie Wright is a win-win for its students, the neighborhood, and the future of public education. We wish them continued success as their program builds and their school's successes multiply.

Now, if we could only do something about that awful bus backing-upping beeping!


  1. It's SO good to read a success story every once in a while and this is a VERY good one. I read the linked article and even though there was no blame attributed to the professional education establishment... only hints at "bureaucracy" and politics... I feel the lion's share of the failure of public schools belongs there. Which is not to say I'm letting bad parents off the hook, coz I'm not. It's a hella-tough problem, which makes success stories like Sophie Wright and Ms. Clark's key role so good to read.

    Thanks for this, Moogie.

  2. AWESOME...and so commonsensical...high expectations, discipline, accountability, parental involvement...such novel concepts.
    Our dear Hall High is on the verge of being closed; it is so awful. The things that happen at that school can not even be repeated. I hope they close it...and I wish for it to be rebirthed in a manner such as this.
    Inner city students deserve to be held to a higher standard! They have the potential to achieve so much more. It is a crime to see the conditions of our public schools in Little Rock. The sad thing is that it does not have to be this way!Sophie Wright is a shining example of this!