A student from Frederick A. Douglass High School on the plane to Belize. | Photos by the author
Sense of Strength
A New Orleans principal’s innovative plan to prepare black students for college
By Casey Parks
Towana Pierre-Floyd said we’d reach the ocean soon. We’d flown over the Gulf of Mexico on our way from New Orleans to Belize, then boarded a bus south. Outside, the road was dust, pocked by craters our chartered bus swerved to miss, but Pierre-Floyd said she could sense it: the Caribbean Sea was close. It was mid-May, technically the first week of Pierre-Floyd’s summer vacation, but she was the kind of high school principal who preferred spending her first days of freedom with students. Pierre-Floyd stood up, stretched her arms above her 5′9′′ frame, then looked back at the two dozen teenagers she’d brought with her to Central America. Most were already lost in their own worlds, sleeping against the bus windows, or staring at their phones, futilely willing Wi-Fi to appear. Only Endiah Guyton, a fifteen-year-old who’d chosen to sit next to Pierre-Floyd for the three-hour bus ride, was still paying attention. Pierre-Floyd sat back down and turned to Endiah.
“We’re about to be on the beach,” Pierre-Floyd told her. “I’m so excited.”
Endiah groaned. She closed her eyes and imagined the sea and the sand she knew would sneak into everything. She worried the waves would undo the soft curls she’d formed into a perfect bun she called “the puff.” What if seaweed scratched her ankles? She opened her eyes, then leaned across the aisle to talk to me.
“I’m not trippin’,” she said. “Salt water is just not my thing.”
Endiah looked out the window for a while, studying the palm trees and wood-frame houses as they blurred by. After half an hour, the landscape no longer surprised her, so Endiah bent back toward me and asked a dozen questions.
“What is your favorite color for eyes?” she asked me. “Do you prefer the major or the minor key? What was college like for you? Do you keep your cell phone bright or dim? Do you watch The Vampire Diaries? What is your best friend’s name? What is this article about?”
I wasn’t sure how to explain to a rising high-school junior why I’d followed her and her classmates to Belize. I’d met Pierre-Floyd a few months before during a tour of Frederick A. Douglass High School, the Ninth Ward charter school where she works, and she’d told me, in passing, that she planned to take twenty-five kids to Belize. Pierre-Floyd said she’d been the first in her family to graduate from college and she thought a high school trip she’d taken to Ghana had helped her earn a degree. She wanted to give her students the same experience.
After the tour, I couldn’t stop thinking about the upcoming trip. Pierre-Floyd and I are the same age. Like her, I was the first in my family to go to college. (Pierre-Floyd is black, and I am white.) I grew up poor in Monroe, Louisiana, and while richer kids went to Paris and Amsterdam during summers, I spent mine in Monroe, circling the beige, one-story Pecanland Mall with no money to spend. None of Pierre-Floyd’s students were rich. Most came from families whose incomes were low enough that the teenagers qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And yet, they wouldn’t have to feel that they were the only ones who’d never been anywhere. They would show up to college with passports, with blue-circle stamps marked Belize.
I’d spent the school year reporting about New Orleans, a city whose population is one-third white but whose public schools contained nearly all children of color, most of them black. Many of those schools were led by white principals and a fleet of white teachers. By the time I met Pierre-Floyd, I’d talked to dozens of students who said the white educators were well-meaning but often expected black kids to enroll at majority-white colleges and meet white ideals of success. Pierre-Floyd is different. She’s black, a New Orleans native, and a graduate of a historically black university. She didn’t want to take her students to Amsterdam. She wanted them to experience Ghana and southern Belize, destinations with communities as black as their high school.
“The article is about the trip,” I told Endiah. “I’m just going to write down everything that happens to y’all this week, and if you feel like telling me how you feel along the way, I’ll write that down, too.”
Endiah nodded in approval. She stuffed earbuds into her ears, selected a song from the X-Men: The Last Stand score, then twisted around to survey the group. Near the back, girls in blue and burgundy braids flirted with boys in spotless sneakers.
Endiah’s two best friends—skinny, bespectacled guys who dreamed of careers in computers—played cell phone chess in the row behind her. She wished she could bunk with them. Instead, she would spend the week sharing a room with a freshman she’d never met and a junior named Tayla. Endiah pulled out one earbud, then tapped the principal on the shoulder.
“Mrs. Pierre-Floyd,” Endiah said. “How did you organize the rooms? I don’t know my roommates.”
Pierre-Floyd looked up from a spreadsheet she was studying.
“That’s the beauty of the trip,” she told Endiah. “You meet people you didn’t know before.”
Endiah nodded her head tentatively, then turned to me. “I want new experiences,” she told me. “It’s just . . .” She trailed off. That morning, she’d taken her first plane ride, and her ears still ached with a pressure she hadn’t expected. She wiggled her jaw and checked her phone. The beach was an hour away. She paused the X-Men score, then pressed play on the video she’d shot from the sky that morning. She’d taped the liftoff and the moment the plane cut through clouds. On her screen, New Orleans grew smaller, then, for a few seconds, all Endiah could see was a vast, inscrutable white.
Two decades ago, when Pierre-Floyd was Endiah’s age and the levees had not yet broken, New Orleans had one of the most poorly ranked public school systems in the country. Only half of the city’s students earned a high school degree, and the state considered nearly ninety percent of New Orleans schools below average or “academically unacceptable.” Pierre-Floyd grew up in the Florida Projects, a Ninth Ward public housing development a dozen or so blocks away from Frederick A. Douglass High School, then a hulk of brown concrete with dark corridors and no air conditioning. In 1997, when she was preparing to enter high school, just a third of Douglass students passed the state math exam required for graduation, and the school’s average ACT score—13.7—was the lowest in the city. Pierre-Floyd never considered attending Douglass. Instead, her parents drove her three miles west to McDonogh #35, the third-best high school in New Orleans and the only top-tier institution whose student body was all black and majority poor. Named for controversial philanthropist John McDonogh—a slaveholder who left his fortune to build public schools for white and black children in New Orleans—that school, along with several others, continues to operate with the McDonogh name.
When I first met Pierre-Floyd, she told me McDonogh #35 had felt like “a baby HBCU,” the high school version of Howard University or the fictional Hillman College depicted on A Different World. Teachers valued her blackness, she said, and taught her the history of African and African-American strength. At school, she learned that New Orleans’s Tremé neighborhood had been the first place in America where a black person could buy land, and L’Union, a New Orleans publication printed in both French and English, was the South’s first black newspaper. “They taught us that this city is special in large part because of all the amazing people of color who came before us,” Pierre-Floyd said. “They told us, ‘You’re going to succeed because you are standing on the shoulders of these giants. They’ve given so much for you to be where you are, so you have to do great things in return.’”
As a high school student, Pierre-Floyd joined Students at the Center, a new program born out of a McDonogh #35 junior English class. Technically, Students at the Center was a creative writing program, but the group’s founder, a white teacher named Jim Randels, pushed students to use essays and documentaries to connect to their community. Pierre-Floyd and her classmates called themselves the Newbians, a play on the African Nubians. They wrote poems about local civil rights activists and recorded radio commentaries about racial profiling by the police force. In class, they discussed the differences between McDonogh #35 and Douglass. Racially and socioeconomically the schools were identical, but McDonogh #35 was a selective-admissions magnet school, an institution that required students to have high test scores and likely the kind of parents savvy or available enough to help their children enroll. Douglass accepted every neighborhood teen. Lisa Richardson, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of New Orleans, followed Pierre-Floyd and the Newbians for a few years. In her dissertation, she describes one of those conversations about the two high schools. Kalamu ya Salaam, a guest writer who worked with Randels, told the students that he and Randels believed magnet schools like McDonogh #35 were “a holdover from segregation.”
“If you didn’t have magnet schools like a #35, students like you all would be at Frederick Douglass, and it would change the environment,” Salaam told Pierre-Floyd and her classmates. “We want to fight the brain drain model, where the best and brightest are skimmed and all the energy, creativity, and power are sucked away to work for someone else’s interest.”
Students at the Center taught Pierre-Floyd to see New Orleans differently. The program also paid for her to travel to conferences in Atlanta and San Francisco. Every time she left New Orleans, Pierre-Floyd felt more confident about going away for college. No one in her family had earned a degree, but her teachers and parents taught her she deserved one. She graduated from high school in 2001 as valedictorian. Howard University in Washington, D.C., the highest-ranked historically black school in the country, awarded her a full scholarship. Pierre-Floyd longed to attend the university black students call “The Mecca,” but she worried. No one in her family had ever moved away from New Orleans.
After graduation, Students at the Center sent the Newbians on a final pre-college excursion, a ten-day trip to Ghana. “I remember we got off the plane, and they served us what we thought was jambalaya,” Pierre-Floyd said. “It was jollof rice and fried chicken.” Later that first day, she saw a parade in Accra that reminded her of the Second Line brass band marches that fill New Orleans streets most Sundays. “It opened me up because it was so connected to my experience,” she told me. “Being in Africa and seeing the things that you have embraced as your culture in this place that you know far preceded it was powerful.”
Near the end of their stay, Pierre-Floyd visited the Elmina Castle, where tens of thousands of Africans were held before being sold into slavery and shipped across the ocean to places such as New Orleans. Pierre-Floyd stepped into the castle. She walked down a narrow hallway, then passed through the wooden Door of No Return. The ocean stretched out before her. Pierre-Floyd couldn’t swim, so she tiptoed into the water. She looked out and imagined the black men and women who’d passed through the door centuries earlier.
Two months later, she left New Orleans for Washington, D.C.
To Endiah’s great relief, we arrived too late the first night to swim. Belize has plenty of beaches closer to the airport, hotels with white sand and water so blue it looks fake, but Pierre-Floyd had chosen ours, a resort called Jaguar Reef, because it was in Hopkins, in the southern Belize region where many Garifuna, the country’s indigenous black people, live. The bus dropped us off in darkness, and sand fleas bit our ankles as we dragged our suitcases along a gravel entrance. I could hear the ocean, but I couldn’t see it.
The next morning, we ate a breakfast of black beans, watermelon, and sweet potato muffins, then we piled into two vans and headed toward Palmento Grove, a Garifuna cultural preserve on a peninsula just north of Jaguar Reef. The vans rattled down a dirt road, then stopped at a dead end that dropped into a river. A tour boat, one of the drivers explained, would take us the rest of the way. A long motorboat pulled up to the shore, and we stepped, one by one, over the hull. Once we were all in, the driver revved the engine and we zipped forward. A few minutes later, the boat dropped us off at a different sandy riverbank. A black mutt barked at us from the shore. One of Endiah’s classmates shrieked and refused to get out of the boat. She told us she’d been terrified of dogs since she was three and her Dachshund chased her around the house the year Katrina hit. A few of the boys snickered.
“It’s not for everybody to understand someone else’s fears,” Pierre-Floyd told the boys. “But it’s a thing, the number of black people scared of dogs. They were used against us.”
Pierre-Floyd shooed the dog away, and we waited under a thatched roof until a Garifuna woman named Uwahnie Martinez appeared wearing a dress the colors of the pan-African flag.
“Welcome to our cultural island,” Martinez said. “We’ll start off by choosing one of our cultural outfits.”
Martinez pointed the students toward a hut filled with traditional Garifuna clothes, and Endiah slinked behind as the other girls ran toward a rack of gingham dresses. I walked with her, then we waited while her classmates chose the brightest colors. After the girls left, Endiah pulled down a yellow smock, tried it on, then took it off.
“I can’t be caught in this,” she whispered to me.
Endiah thumbed through the dresses, rejecting every one as too pink or too long. She kept searching until someone tapped her on the shoulder. Endiah looked up. It was Myshell, the quiet freshman Pierre-Floyd had assigned as Endiah’s roommate. Myshell was wearing a yellow, black, and white Garifuna dress, a scheme that matched her checkered Vans slip-ons. She held up her cell phone.
“Um,” she said to Endiah. “Would you mind taking a picture of me for my mom?”
Endiah snapped the photo, then handed Myshell her phone. Myshell waited, so Endiah grabbed a yellow shirt from the boys’ side of the costume rack and pulled it over her navy t-shirt. The three of us walked back toward the group together. When we arrived, Endiah sat next to me on a wooden bench. She leaned over and told me she and Myshell had kind-of, sort-of started to become friends the night before. They’d bonded over a freaky picture they found hanging over one of the beds, she said, and they’d stayed up late, scaring each other every time a noise creaked outside their window.
“See?” I said. “Maybe Mrs. Pierre-Floyd was right. Maybe you’ll make friends on this trip.”
I knew Endiah had everything she needed to succeed academically in school. She’d told me the night before that she earned A’s in all but one class, and her ACT score was already high enough to get into any Louisiana university. But academics are just a piece of what leads young people to succeed. I watched Endiah talk to Myshell, and I knew she’d need moments like these in college. She’d need a friend she could laugh with when things turned scary.
Martinez reappeared and told us to follow her. She led us across a dusty plot dotted with wild cilantro. She asked if we’d heard of the Garifuna before. A few kids shook their heads no, but no one spoke.
“No?” Martinez said. “Okay, we’re the only black indigenous in Belize.”
The Garifuna people are a mix of three different groups who met and intermingled on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, Martinez explained as we walked. First, the indigenous Arawaks of South America mixed with the Carib Indians. Then, Martinez said, legend has it that a Spanish ship carrying enslaved people from Nigeria crashed near St. Vincent in the mid-1600s. The Nigerians mixed with the Arawak-Carib Indians, creating the Garifuna. People have tried since then to diminish the Garifuna culture; Martinez told us her ancestors fought off the French, then survived several British takeover attempts. Eventually, in the late 1700s, Martinez said, the Brits were victorious and exiled the Garifuna off St. Vincent.
“They placed them on a barren island next door where nothing grew,” she said. “That led to half the population dying. The other half, who were scheduled for extermination by the British, were put in a big boat, ten of those big boats, and sent to the islands off Honduras, where they were just left to die. Fortunately for us, our spirituality, which is embedded in the love for each other—you take care of me, I’ll take care of you—is what carried us through.”
Honduran leaders persecuted the Garifuna, too, Martinez said, so her ancestors fled to Guatemala, Nicaragua, and southern Belize. “They didn’t welcome us, but we stayed nonetheless.”
Martinez stopped in front of a wild herb garden. She pointed out plants that cured diabetes and asthma. We passed one tree she said was “for good vibes” and another she called “the tourist tree” because its peeling bark burns in the sun the same way white tourists’ skin does.
“What number of black American groups do you get?” Pierre-Floyd asked.
Martinez let out a long breath.
“This is actually, well, teenagers in school, it’s the first,” she said. “We usually get vacationing groups. Mainly whites. So when I see some blacks showing up, I’m really happy.”
Martinez told the students to pick habaneros for a soup she planned to make for lunch. The teens walked ahead of us, and Martinez told me Garifuna people are still fighting for equality. “I was working in the bank,” she said. “They didn’t want us to speak our indigenous language in there. It led to some demonstrations. I resigned. It was a whole uproar in the country for about two months. That’s when we started the cultural tour.”
The kids returned, peppers in hand, and Martinez led us to an outdoor kitchen. She told the students she planned to teach them how to make hudut, a traditional dish of coconut milk, herbs, plantains, and fish.
Myshell sat down next to Endiah and began mixing ground coconut with water. Endiah watched, but they didn’t talk. Endiah leaned over and told me a relative had called her antisocial. “But I’m not antisocial,” she said. “I’m introverted. I just have to find the right person. I talk a lot to Jalal and Coltrane.”
She nodded toward her two best friends. Jalal was eating whole habanero peppers, and Coltrane had been steadfastly grinding coconut for half an hour. Coltrane was Pierre-Floyd’s son. Jalal had introduced himself to me at the airport by telling me he longed to try soursop. He was knowing and funny, a little bit too smart to fit in easily with a group of teenagers. As they processed the coconut, Jalal asked Martinez so many erudite questions that one of the other girls finally interrupted him.
“Jalal, just please be quiet,” the girl said. “I’m asking Jesus. Stop Jalal. He’s been talking since middle school.”
Endiah knew Coltrane and Jalal were nerdy, but she didn’t mind. She and Jalal could spend an hour debating at what length a knife became a sword. She could talk ACT test-taking strategies with Coltrane or play cell phone games next to him without talking.
Martinez chopped the head off of a barracuda, then dropped the head, eyeballs and all, into the coconut milk. She heated up oil to fry the fish, and a girl asked Martinez if she planned to dredge the fillet in cornmeal.
“Oh, no,” Martinez said. “That’s a sin. A fresh piece of fish, you don’t want to put any cornmeal on it. It takes away the taste.”
The students laughed and gasped. “We been sinning a lot in New Orleans,” the girl replied.
Martinez fried the fillets, then doled out bowls of soup and mashed plantains. She showed us how to eat with our hands, how to form the plantains into a kind of spoon to sop up the broth. Everything tasted fresh and soulful, new but reminiscent of foods we’d grown up eating in Louisiana. We all went back for seconds.
After lunch, Martinez led the students back to the thatched-hut pavilion. She arranged them in a circle and sat each in front of a bongo-styled drum. A local musician arrived and told the kids he’d teach them to play the Garifuna spiritual rhythm, a beat called the HunguHungu.
“How many of you play an instrument?” Martinez asked. Only Endiah raised her hand. She plays alto sax, piano, flute, and guitar, and as she held her hand in the air, I thought I saw her crack a sheepish smile. The students tried to imitate the instructor’s stuttered slap, but most lost the beat after a while. Jalal shook his shoulders. Myshell checked her phone, and the other girls took turns dancing with Pierre-Floyd in the center. Endiah closed her eyes. She followed the rhythm, then bobbed her head on the down notes. For the first time on the trip, I thought, she looked at ease.
Pierre-Floyd thought often about the Ghana trip while she was at Howard. She decorated her dorm room with masks and headwraps she bought in West Africa, and over time, she came to see them as talismans, reminders of all that black people had survived and created. Pierre-Floyd’s college years were particularly frightening. The 9/11 attack, in which a third plane crashed into the Pentagon four miles from Howard’s campus, happened just a month into her freshman year. The D.C. snipers prowled the district the following fall, and her mother begged her to move back to New Orleans. Pierre-Floyd was nervous, too, but felt she could stay. It helped that she was at Howard, she said, “because it felt like home, a place where people wanted me to win.”
Hearing about Pierre-Floyd’s experience in Ghana reminded me of a trip I took my senior year of high school. I was seventeen then, and I’d never been on an airplane. Somehow, I found out about a contest for student journalists sponsored by the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit that ran the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I applied and won, and that fall, the organization flew me to see the museum and meet the publisher of USA Today. I began on that trip to envision a life for myself outside of the South. People rode subways, and buildings stretched stories into the sky. The nonprofit had chosen two students from every state, and that week, I met people from Montana and Wisconsin, places I hadn’t even thought to imagine. One night, the Freedom Forum held a fancy dinner for us at the National Press Club, and I stared at the array of forks, ashamed of all I didn’t know. I went home sure I didn’t want the life my family members had.
Seeing other places can expand a young person’s worldview in ways that allow them to understand their own lives more clearly. But what Pierre-Floyd described was something different than what I’d experienced. She hadn’t just learned to navigate airports and new cuisines. She’d found, in Ghana, a community and history that affirmed her strength as a black woman. As much as my trip had meant to me, I’d never needed the havens Pierre-Floyd found in McDonogh #35 and Ghana. White kids—even poor ones like I was—didn’t need trips or special high schools to affirm our place in the world. Every textbook and institution told us our legacy was a powerful one.
Pierre-Floyd realized at Howard that she wanted to give other young black people that same sense of strength. She tutored at two D.C. charter schools and decided to pursue a career in education. By the time she graduated, she was married and Coltrane was one year old. She signed up for Teach for America, the nonprofit that sends new college graduates to work in under-resourced school districts, then she flew South toward home. Teach for America assigned her to Marion Abramson High School, a one-story brick building across town in New Orleans East. It’s a suburban section of the city, bounded by water and unknown to most tourists. The subject of recent National Book Award–winning memoir The Yellow House, New Orleans East is “a blank space on someone’s mental map” of the city, writes author Sarah M. Broom, who grew up there. “There are no guided tours to this part of the city, except for the disaster bus tours that became an industry after Hurricane Katrina, carting visitors around, pointing out the great destruction of neighborhoods that were never known or set foot in before the Water, except by their residents.” Pierre-Floyd knew the East well. Her parents moved there when she was a sophomore at McDonogh #35, and her younger siblings graduated from Abramson while she was at Howard. Abramson wasn’t considered the worst school in New Orleans, but the thirty it scored on the annual state performance review was far below the one hundred ninety-nine the selective Benjamin Franklin Senior High School earned that year. Pierre-Floyd taught English.
“I was a very strict teacher,” she told me. “They would probably say I’m still strict, but I had firm rules. If things happened, you got detention. If you skipped detention, I came to your house. I was a baby teacher, twenty-two, but they didn’t know that. I told them I was forty.”
She was visiting one of the detention-skippers’ homes on a Saturday in late August when the kid’s mom asked if Pierre-Floyd planned to leave for the storm. “I was like, ‘What storm?’” Pierre-Floyd recalled. That night, when she went home, Pierre-Floyd turned on the thirteen-inch black-and-white television she’d gotten for free when she opened a Hibernia Bank account with her first teaching paycheck. She turned the channel to Bob Breck, the city’s legendary weatherman, for news about the hurricane that the World Meteorological Organization had named Katrina.
“He said, ‘If people don’t leave New Orleans, there won’t be enough body bags,’” she told me. “I had my husband. I had my son. I was like, ‘Well, we’re leaving.’”
They drove through the night to Vicksburg. They stayed with relatives for a few days, then moved to a church shelter. Eventually, Teach for America called and asked Pierre-Floyd to go to Houston to teach students who’d been displaced by the hurricane. She and her family spent a school year in Texas, then returned to New Orleans in 2006 so Pierre-Floyd could help reopen a creative-arts middle school. She taught social studies and worked as the “dean of culture,” a role that allowed her to plan field trips and work with families on discipline issues. She left in 2009 because her husband, Dave, who’s from Maryland, wanted to move back to the East Coast. She spent four years as the principal of a charter middle school in D.C., then in 2013, Pierre-Floyd and her family returned to New Orleans. This time, she took a job at Douglass.
Like most New Orleans schools, Douglass had changed since Katrina. The hurricane destroyed entire neighborhoods and shuttered many schools, but some education activists saw opportunity in the storm. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans teachers were represented by a powerful union. A few months after Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board stopped recognizing the union and fired all forty-six hundred of the city’s public school teachers, most of them black with an average of fifteen years of experience. The state took over the district and began turning schools over to nonprofit charter school organizations. Most were led by “education reformers,” Ivy League–educated technocrats who wanted to remake American education in the image of a successful business—people supported by billionaire philanthropists like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates and the Walton Family Foundation. Many came to New Orleans from Teach for America or cities like New York and Washington, where education officials were encouraging competition and innovation to improve schools.
By 2013, all but a few of New Orleans’s schools were charters, publicly funded institutions that operated independently of the school district, free of red tape and labor rules. Many were staffed primarily with novice, white teachers.
Reformers have proclaimed the charter takeover a success (Arne Duncan famously called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans”)—though the story is more complex. In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein described the privatization of New Orleans public schools as “disaster capitalism,” or “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting opportunities.” In a recent article for Harper’s, Andrea Gabor wrote of the “grave unintended consequences” of New Orleans’s charter “experiment” and reported on the schools’ declining and stagnating test scores since Katrina.
Douglass became a charter in 2010, when the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the nation’s largest nonprofit charter network, took it over. By then, Douglass was the worst-performing school in Louisiana. Hoping for a fresh start, charter leaders renamed Douglass KIPP Renaissance. (After listening to community members, KIPP leaders changed the name again, back to Douglass, last fall.) They painted the old brown concrete building white, hung college banners from the cafeteria ceiling, and set a goal of producing a total of one thousand college graduates by 2022. (In 2004, just eight of Douglass’s one hundred and thirty-one graduates went on to college.) Those early efforts did little to turn Douglass around. By the time Pierre-Floyd arrived as an assistant principal in 2013, Douglass had gone through three different leaders in as many years. Fewer than half of its students were performing on grade level, and the state had given it a D rating two years in a row.
That first year, Pierre-Floyd dove deep into the high school’s instructional systems. She increased the amount of reading and writing students do, and she overhauled the way Douglass trains and develops teachers. She set about making cultural changes, too. Under its first—white—leaders, Douglass had been known as a “no excuses” charter school, an institution with a strict uniform policy and a high suspension rate. State performance review data for the school revealed, however, that Douglass’s stringent policies didn’t help students perform better, and research showed that black and Latinx students lose more instructional time over small uniform infractions than white students do, so Pierre-Floyd worked with her new colleagues to turn Douglass into a place where students had more autonomy. Teachers decreased the number of suspensions they handed out each year, and school leaders allowed students to decide whether to wear uniforms.
By 2015, Pierre-Floyd and the school’s fourth principal—a black New Orleanian named Joey LaRoche—had pulled the school’s rating up to a B. But many of Douglass’s first students, who graduated the year Pierre-Floyd arrived, were struggling in college. Most couldn’t name just one reason. They needed money or missed their families. They couldn’t decipher a syllabus or understand a professor’s foreign accent. Some were lonely, others just overwhelmed. KIPP’s national leaders offered Pierre-Floyd a yearlong fellowship to step back and study what Douglass officials might do to produce more college graduates. She spent much of the year reading academic research and found studies that showed students of color perform best when they believe they are from a smart, high-achieving people. She knew that many black students received the opposite message. Even the most well-intentioned educators sometimes tell young African Americans that they can succeed even though their ancestors didn’t.
“When we think about the true impact of telling fourteen-year-olds, ‘You’re brilliant and special, but your people . . . you’ll succeed despite all of these things,’ you’re putting the burden of everything on a fourteen-year-old’s back,” she told me. “It’s insane. Of course I’m going to buckle under pressure. Instead, if I tell the truth, which is, ‘You come from a long line of brilliant people who have done these amazing things,’ there is still pressure, but the pressure instead is to actually build on their legacy. Let’s not pretend that you’re not coming from incredible people.”
Too many textbooks and teachers gave black students an incomplete narrative, Pierre-Floyd told me. They taught black students that they were captured as slaves, made to work hard for a while, then freed by the nice Abe Lincoln. Jim Crow was a somewhat hard time, but then the Civil Rights Act fixed everything.
“That is literally a story that even now we tell kids about how this all happened,” Pierre-Floyd told me. “It paints kids and their communities as really weak. And it does not allow for the agency of our people.”
As Pierre-Floyd wrapped up her fellowship in 2016, she decided she would return to Douglass with a new initiative. The high school would retain the hallmarks of a college-prep charter school. It would still offer ACT prep classes and intensive college counseling, and school leaders would add a new program that would allow students to earn an associate’s degree while still in high school. But Douglass would also root itself deeper in its blackness. Teachers would talk about Lucien Victor Alexis and Alice Dunbar-Nelson,
African-American scholars their city produced. Students would learn about the Maroon Colonies, communities that resisted enslavement and established their own societies in swamps around New Orleans.
“New Orleanians weren’t running to Philly,” she told me. “They weren’t running to Canada for freedom. They were creating freedom here, and we don’t tell those stories. We are hurting kids because we are making them believe you have to do something that’s never been done, when actually it’s been done quite a bit.”
McDonogh #35’s teachers had instilled in Pierre-Floyd a knowledge of her community’s strength, and they’d shown her, on the Ghana trip, that she was a part of a global legacy. Many of her students had only left New Orleans once—during Hurricane Katrina. Soon after Pierre-Floyd became principal in 2016, she announced she would give her students the chance to experience the transformative moment she’d had in Ghana.
The second morning in Belize, Endiah slept through most of the one hundred-and-thirty-three-kilometer drive to two Mayan reserves. She didn’t wake up when their van dipped up and down a rutted road, or when they passed a high school and her classmates praised God they didn’t have to study or wear a school uniform for the rest of the summer. Endiah nodded awake only after they drove alongside a field full of black people on horses and her classmates began to sing “Old Town Road.” The country-rap song had so dominated the airwaves that spring that even she, a girl who preferred movie scores or the neo-soul sounds of India.Arie, knew the words. She didn’t sing, but she mouthed along as her classmates hit the hook full-throated.
“Can’t nobody tell me nothin’.”
The van inched up a gravel path, then let us off outside Lubaantun, the largest Mayan site in southern Belize. We spent the day hiking, climbing over limestone pyramids that had survived a thousand years of weather. We ran through the rain forest in the actual pouring rain, and Endiah and Jalal laughed so much that they told me they didn’t mind that their clothes were soaked and their plastic-framed glasses all fogged. They needed a photograph to document the moment, they said. Jalal held a cell phone out to take a selfie, and Endiah told him to wait. Droplets hung off the ends of her curls.
“I need to see what my hair looks like,” she said. She shook the droplets out, then looked up into Jalal’s cell phone. They smiled big and cheesy.
The sun came out, and our van pulled up to take us back to the beach. On the way home, the driver stopped in Big Falls and pointed us toward a wooden house. We followed him inside and found a cavernous room with little in it, just a ladder, a paint tarp, and a small table covered in headbands and jewelry, crafts the driver said Mayan women made and sold to support themselves. Endiah picked out a wooden turtle necklace for her sister and colored bracelets for her mom and aunt. She pulled a stretchy bracelet with wood charms over her wrist.
As the teenagers shopped, a tiny woman appeared in the dark. She told me her name was Cecilia Baki. She made the crafts. She asked if the teenagers were in high school, and I told her they were.
“My daughter will graduate high school in three weeks,” Baki told me. “She wants to go to college in the city, but we don’t have enough money.”
Instead, Baki told me, her daughter would have to work in tourism. There are no other jobs. Only eighteen percent of young people go to college in Belize. The rest make crafts or work in restaurants serving foreigners who have the money to spend on a tropical vacation.
As Baki talked, I remembered something Pierre-Floyd had told me. Before charter school leaders reshaped the New Orleans education landscape, many people, including Pierre-Floyd, felt like some of the city’s public schools undereducated kids so they’d have no choice but to work in New Orleans’s $8.7 billion tourism industry. Low-wage workers keep the city’s bars, restaurants, and casinos afloat.
“We shouldn’t pretend these things are by mistake,” she’d told me. “They are by design. You need a lot of cooks and housekeepers, and too many schools were set up in a way where that was actually the more viable option.”
State data shows charter school leaders did improve New Orleans students’ overall test scores and graduation rates, but Pierre-Floyd found the “turn-around” narrative incomplete and frustrating. She and generations of black students had received a great education at McDonogh #35, and she continued to mine what she’d learned there to guide her charter school students forward.
“It actually invalidates anybody who was educated by the system beforehand,” she told me.
We said goodbye to Baki, then loaded back into the van. Pierre-Floyd and I talked about what her students might do after high school. The number of college graduates in New Orleans has slowly ticked up since the storm, but the complete overhaul that some activists expected—a new system that ferries every student toward a bachelor’s degree—hasn’t materialized. Even now, far more students drop out or never attend college than earn a degree. Pierre-Floyd wouldn’t know for many years whether this trip to Belize would help students persist in pursuing their education, but she brought up the future often and encouraged her students to believe they were capable of going anywhere.
“When you hear ‘college isn’t for everyone,’ it’s a very targeted conversation,” she told me. “Some of the people saying that would never turn the conversation to their own kids. It’s important to me that every kid in this school, in whatever way that matters and means to them, goes to college. College is more than just an opportunity to get a degree. You’re transitioning between youth and adulthood. It’s the only time in your life you get to toggle that line and figure out who you want to be as a person.”
She turned around and asked the students where they wanted to go. An aspiring actress said she planned to attend New York University. Jalal wanted to go to Carnegie Mellon. The other students hollered out their answers. Most wanted to attend historically black colleges and universities in the South. Endiah didn’t answer. She pushed her earbuds in, and when the X-Men score started, she closed her eyes and twisted the wooden bracelet around her wrist. After a while, she pulled one of the earbuds out and whispered to me.
“The highlight of my life is going to be college, not high school,” she told me. “I already have a plan of what I’m going to do.”
She wanted to major in psychology and minor in criminal law, she told me. Then she’d join the police academy so she could become a special-victims detective. She knew what adult hairstyles she wanted—double-strand twists or dreads, shoulder length—but, she admitted, she didn’t know where she’d go to college. She wanted to leave the state, she said, but she probably wouldn’t be able to afford to. She planned to spend the summer cramming for the ACT. If she could pull her score up to a thirty, she thought, she might win a bigger scholarship.
The van rocked as we drove, and most of the teenagers fell asleep. Pierre-Floyd announced that the final day of the trip would be easier. We wouldn’t hike in the rain or grind the meat out of coconuts. “Tomorrow,” she said, “is beach day.”
We slept in Saturday, then dragged ourselves to breakfast. Pierre-Floyd had promised to bike with a few students toward town to buy souvenirs. Everyone else, she said, could spend the day by the pool or in the ocean. The resort offered free kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards, and Pierre-Floyd encouraged the students to set out on the waves. Endiah didn’t say anything. She knew how to swim, and she and Jalal and Coltrane had walked along the sand at night, but she’d kept a safe distance from the shore.
I went with Pierre-Floyd. The sun was direct and the temperature was pushing ninety, and when we returned a few hours later, I walked to the pool. A handful of boys were taking turns cannonballing into the water. Most of the girls stood waist-deep, snapping portraits of each other’s bathing suits. Endiah sat off to the side in a chaise lounge, watching the X-Men movie on her phone with a towel wrapped around her legs.
“I don’t want to get too dark,” she told me, pointing to the towel.
I told her I was going to eat lunch, and she followed me back to the mostly empty dining room where Pierre-Floyd was sitting alone at a table near the ocean. “I’m planning next year’s trip,” Pierre-Floyd told us. If she could raise enough money, she said, she wanted to take her students to Paris to show them France’s black history.
Pierre-Floyd handed us the menu. We’d eaten seafood three days in a row, so she told us she’d ordered a hamburger. Endiah pored over the options, trying to talk herself into trying a dish she wouldn’t be able to get in New Orleans. I ordered ceviche, and it arrived before Endiah made up her mind. She eyed my raw shrimp for a while. When the waiter returned, Endiah ordered ceviche, too. She ate a few bites, then pushed the shrimp toward the middle of the table.
“Ceviche is an acquired taste,” she said.
After lunch, the aspiring actress walked up and asked Pierre-Floyd if she wanted to kayak with her. I remembered that Pierre-Floyd couldn’t swim, but she told the student yes. She buckled on a life vest, then they dragged a yellow boat into the water. Endiah and I watched from the sand for a while. Every time Pierre-Floyd tried to get in the boat, it tipped, dumping her into the sea.
One of the chaperones, a ninth-grade English teacher, paddled back to shore and asked Endiah if she would at least pose for a picture by the ocean. Endiah looked at me, then relented. She stepped into the shallows. The sun hit her face, and when she smiled for the photo, she looked happy. A wave crashed against her ankles. The seaweed she’d dreaded a few days before floated across her feet.
“Huh,” she said. “That’s not too bad.”
Pierre-Floyd gave up on the kayak and returned to the shore laughing.
“You want to try it?” she asked Endiah. “No pressure.”
Endiah looked out at the water. In the distance, Jalal and Coltrane paddled in sync.
“Okay,” she said. She ran to the boat house and came back with a life vest. A tour guide handed her a teal and white paddle board. Endiah sat on the board, used the paddle to push off from the shore, then drifted away.
The sun began to sink, and Pierre-Floyd tiptoed into the ocean the way I imagined she had in Ghana. She watched as a wave lifted Endiah up, then pitched her back down. The board swayed, but Endiah steadied herself. Pierre-Floyd squinted, tracking Endiah as she rowed past everyone until the only thing ahead of the teenager was the horizon and a limitless blue that no longer scared her.
This story about study abroad was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and co-published with the Oxford American magazine. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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