Our generation of leaders have been tasked with taking on the forces of global change, a new generation of youth, and also growing disparities as the wealth gap continues to increase and as climate change continues to affect the poorest communities. The experience of being an insider in the education system of New Orleans has allowed me to witness, and beginning to understand the complexities of, an experimental project in education- unparalleled in any other city.
New Orleans is the first city in the country to be almost completely charter. The traditional public education system in New Orleans was erased and replaced following the catastrophic destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Schools were decentralized and privatized. Business and social entrepreneurs, non-profits, and private contractors restructured the school system. I have the unique opportunity through my Newman’s Own Foundation Fellowship to be placed at a 501(C)(3) charter network formed 7 years before Katrina, making it the oldest open admissions charter network in the city.
Working with FirstLine Schools, operating in the unique context of New Orleans education, has reinvigorated my passion for education and the critical approach that needs to be taken in the maintenance and improvement of an institutional system tasked not only with educating, but also socializing, our country’s youth. Schools, and the education that happens in their classrooms, are inevitably an intersection point where the disparities in wealth, housing, health, and discrimination come into play. Being around students, educators, and affected communities in New Orleans, reaffirms the complexity and immense task of education, and educators who operate within the existing frameworks, but also within the inequities of the city’s communities.
One of my favorite parts about working with FirstLine Schools, is getting to hang out with students and observing their interactions with our signature program Edible Schoolyard. Our four K-8 schools have beautiful gardens incorporated into a seed-to-table curriculum offering garden and culinary classes. I see students firsthand making healthy connections to food, and teaching me what’s going on in the garden, making it a mutual learning experience.
The Fellowship program with Newman’s Own Foundation has been an incredibly special space for reflection and support throughout this Fellowship experience. I never would have expected to form such a familial community with Fellows placed at different non-profits across the country. Each time we get together for a workshop, I’m continually impressed with the diversity of the Fellows and their experiences, yet our ability to create such a familial workshop experience nonetheless.
By Yliana Velazquez – NOF Fellow at FirstLine Schools, New Orleans, LA.