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Audio: New Harmony High takes education to the coastline

Some innovative educators in New Orleans are rethinking high school. When New Harmony High opens next year, it won’t look or act much like your conventional brick and mortar institution. That’s because it will be situated beside and eventually actually on the Mississippi River, and its curriculum will focus on unique lessons about coastal erosion. Recently we sat down with Sunny Dawn Summers, the New Harmony School leader, to talk about this unique project.

Tell me about New Harmony High School. When will it open and what exactly is the concept?

We’re planning to open fall of ‘18 as an open enrollment Type 2 statewide charter, which means we can take students from all over the state. We are a school focused on coastal restoration and preservation, hoping to seek new solutions for what’s happening to the coast of Louisiana, which ultimately effects the rest of the country and the rest of the world. And, we are hoping that students will create projects that will be based on their passions and interests.

We’re hoping to open with 45 freshmen the first year, and then we’re adding a grade every year. So, 60 freshmen the second year, 75, and then 90. We hope to not go over 360; we think a little bit smaller school is better for both the educators and the students and families.

We officially filed the Type 2 charter at the beginning of June. We will probably have our interviews sometime in August. We hope to find out as early as October, but the applications don’t get processed until sometime between October and December. It puts us on a little bit of a tight time line for recruitment, but we are moving forward and not letting this change our work flow. We know that families are seeking different types of education for their high school kids and we want to move forward for all intents and purposes as if we are opening with confidence, knowing that the state will hopefully approve us.

New Harmony beat out 700 applicants to win one of ten $10 million grants from XQ, the Super School Project. What does that mean?

What the XQ grant means to New Harmony High is the ability to spend time really working the first year, before we have students, to figure out how we are going to do this in the right way. I get to be full time and work towards opening the school, and my lead advisor I’ve already been able to bring on full time. She just put together a pilot, which we’ve brought kids along on. It was a pilot on oysters, so looking at food and where your food comes from and how it ends up on the table. And we actually got out of the boat and got in the water in the bayou and pulled up oysters from the bottom of the bayou. We went to restaurants in the French Quarter, we talked to restaurateurs, we talked to oyster fisher people, and we went to Terry’s Oyster and looked at the process from when the oysters arrived to when they come back out in buckets, and the kids’ minds were blown.

What set you apart from all those other applicants?

I think the reason we won the XQ $10 million prize is our school idea ultimately affects every coastal region around the world. How do we get kids and young people invested in their homes to not just save the actual soil, right? We don’t need the soil, what we need is the estuaries that are creating the food that is feeding our people and providing jobs for our people, and the history, and the culture, and the social anthropology that gets overlooked when you talk about sea level rise and land subsidence. It’s not just the water rising and the land going away; there are people who have built their lives there for hundreds of years and this is happening all over the world. We can feel it here because it’s drastic here, especially with the addition of human impact. But, I think XQ was able to see this could really change how education is done within communities.

One other thing that sets us apart, I believe, is the community co-design aspect. We worked really closely with Concordia to make sure that everything we’re doing is bringing the community in and putting the students out. So we’re bringing in not just the PhDs who are sitting on my school board, but also bringing in bar pilots and recent high school graduates and people who never went to college and have amazing careers working in whatever industry in Louisiana that is making Louisiana Louisiana.

How much of this is traditional curriculum and how much of this is project oriented?

We really want students ultimately to be in the field two to three days a week by the time they’re in junior and senior level. That decision isn’t just made with the student; that decision is also made with parents, and mentors, and adult stake holders. We really don’t see ourselves as a traditional high school at all. So, curriculum, no. Project based learning, yes. Do you need to have a class called English to learn communication skills? No. How much can you learn by writing a letter or an email or cold calling someone who does something you think is really cool and you just want to meet them and talk to them, and then you come up with your questions and you sit and talk to them? Like that in itself, that practical application of communication skills is what so many high school kids aren’t getting now.

In today’s high schools, a lot of kids are not motivated; they’re bored. We’re also talking more about on the job and vocational training. It sounds like those are issues that are folded into this concept.

We look at school and learning at New Harmony High in the same way that I look at the ecology of Louisiana. We know in Louisiana that everything is connected, right? The fish, lack of oxygen, over-farming of the upper Midwest -- everything is connected. Well, in education everything is connected as well. You don’t learn one thing in a silo. Everything impacts everything, so we have to be looking at this as a holistic learning environment. The same can be said for the ultimate goal of New Harmony High.

The school isn’t just a school, right? We interface with the community, we prepare students to be part of the community seamlessly, and we bring the community into the school as well.

A lot of people’s eyes glaze over when you talk about coastal erosion because they they see it from a distance. But if you’re living a problem, if you’re immersed in a problem, then you understand it and can address it in a completely different way.

People say, I know it’s there but it doesn’t affect me. And I like to say, did you know that 20 percent of the nation’s energy is based on Louisiana Highway 1, Port Fouchon? When Katrina hit and we didn’t have the infrastructure from our barrier islands to slow the storm down, Highway 1 washed out. It was the first time that gas in the United States went over $3. It doesn’t affect you? People don’t realize that we are a gold mine, literally a black gold mine in the South, and that how we are mining our gold is impacting our coast. Until you stop driving a car and stop buying plastic and stop liking air conditioning, I’m going to have a hard time saying oil and gas is the devil, right? But we have sea level rise, we have land subsidence, the way that we have levied off the river and tried to control the river so that we can keep our families, and buildings, and industry safe, all of that combined is causing a problem that we’ve got to learn how to fix if we are going to live where we are right now.

Is this something that came out of Hurricane Katrina?

Not necessarily. But I think Katrina changed people’s perspectives. It changed the way that they thought about the possibility that they could lose everything. And I think that that makes the idea that New Orleans could be under water a little more real.

I also feel like we have been better problem solvers since the storm.

I think there are a lot of innovative thinkers in business, and in education. I think the thing that stands in the way is backsliding. There’s like a magnet towards the status quo. It’s so much easier to just be “normal.” But the people who are doing new and different and interesting things, if you get a taste of it, you don’t want anything else. You know how people are after they’ve eaten here, they’re like how can I go back and eat something else somewhere else? And I think when you get a taste of that, I can’t imagine going back because I’ve realized how important it is to move forward. For the kids in the community, I just can’t imagine going backwards.

Why New Harmony, why the name?

Great question. The people who originally came up with this idea sitting around lunch at a table were talking about the idea that we don’t know the science and the technology that will save us yet. It is up to the youth to discover and create and to ultimately create new harmonies, the way that things will come together. With harmony, we think about music, but really it’s about things working together. Harmony is the sound of ecology, the sound of a beautiful ecology, of humans and land and everything working together.

I think a lot of people here still do live in harmony with the environment, and it’s up to us to get back there. But it’s not going to be in the same old ways; it’s got to be something different. We can’t just make another river diversion and expect things to work out. We have to have new ways of doing things.

What is New Harmony High going to look like?

I think New Harmony High will feel like a family unit. We’ll feel like a place that kids want to go. I’ve done a lot of visiting of other schools that have this similar design of the internships and advisories, and it feels so welcoming.

I envision us having some footprint on the land and some footprint on the water, and we want to involve students in what that looks like. So we’re going to have a place for us to land when we open that will not be our permanent location or permanent facility. Quite frankly, with the pushback of the charter application, we don’t have enough time in our timeline to get something open for fall of ‘18 for the students who are coming, but we will be in close proximity to the water when we open.

Do you know where the school will be?

I have my eye on somewhere. It is on the West Bank and it is in close proximity to the water. We’d like to be stationed in Orleans Parish, at least initially. I think the river is a great place for us to be. I wouldn’t be opposed to be on the lake, but right now we’re looking at a place on the river. It is a public space and we need to go through a letter of intent and all the proper channels, so I hesitate to say exactly where it is, but it is on the water and does have some great old buildings and hopefully that will work out for us.

Are you accepting applications?

I don’t have an application process right now, today, but I was talking with someone who is doing some operations stuff for us just this morning and we were talking about how early we could get an application up on the web. As a Type 2 charter, it’s sort of up to us what the application process looks like, and we anticipate needing a lottery and a wait list just from the response that we’ve gotten. And we’re only taking 45 students, at least for now.

But anyone who is interested in staying up to date can go to our website, newharmonyhigh.org. There’s a form on the very front page that says are you a perspective student, perspective parent, perspective staff, you just want to stay informed, and you can give me a little note. That comes right to me and I promise I will respond. We’ve had lots of parents and perspective staff already reach out and we’ve been overwhelmed with the positive support from the community. It’s been great.

What are the criteria going to be for getting into this school?

So, being a public open enrollment school, I will never turn anyone away. I want to make sure that students know what they’re getting into before they start off at the school. So that means that we will have a very clear interview process with students and families, just letting them know what the expectations will be and how much ownership the student has to take over their own learning and education, so no one’s blindsided and say, ‘I have an exhibition, I have a 28 minute exhibition, I’m just a freshman.’ We want the kids to say I know exactly what I’m getting into and I’m up for the challenge because I know I get to pursue my own interests and passions and work on my own projects through this process.

Logistically, if kids come from throughout the state, it’s up to them to find a place to live in New Orleans?

At this point, we aren’t providing boarding. We’re focusing our recruitment on adjacent to New Orleans. So we’re focusing on Plaquemines, Saint Charles, Jefferson, Saint Bernard, and Orleans Parish. I would be happy to take students from anywhere. Right now, we’re not boarding, but if that was the only thing that kept away a student who was really passionate about coming to our school, watch me work some magic and try to figure out what we can do. We want this to really be people who are charged by the mission of helping Louisiana survive and thrive, and so if that was it, then we’ll figure it out.

We want to provide transportation, too. We’re not required to as a Type 2 charter, but I feel that if you don’t provide transportation as a public school, you aren’t really a public school. That’s my own personal opinion.

What most excites you about this process?

What I’ve seen in traveling to other places that do this type of model. I’ve been able to talk to kids who have had similar experiences as we hope our students at New Harmony High will experience, and the way that students explain that they used to hate school and now they love it, or this place saved my life, or I’ve never felt so alive, or I come to school every day, or whatever it is. It really is going to be a school for students who are not seeking a traditional high school. If you want to play football, awesome, great -- you’re just probably not going to want to come to New Harmony High. What I really feel like most excited about is kids getting to sort of geek out on what excites them and to feel excited about being at school because so often they don’t. I’ve been a public school teacher for the last six years and I love the faces of students who come into my room because I can tell they want to be there, and my heart breaks when I see the faces of kids who don’t.

What’s the most challenging part of this process?

The hardest part of the process of getting a school open is the political side of things, talking to the right people, informing the right people, making sure that you’ve gone through the right channels in the right order. That’s not something that I have done before and it’s been a learning curve a little bit. I’ve had a lot of really great supporters in that, but that’s been hard for me. It’s not where my brain goes; my brain goes to working with the students, so it’s difficult.

Name one thing that you hope one of your future graduates does to change the world.

This might sound cheesy. I hope my future graduates can have their own children who love Louisiana. So I’m 38; in 25 years will my children be able to live in my house? Those are the things that keep me awake at night. If we don’t do anything about this problem, what will happen? And I’m not talking about all the really great organizations that are doing so much in informing community; they’re doing a great thing. There’s no one under the age of 30 at any of those meetings; there are very few people under the age of 40. Where are the kids? As soon as kids are involved, the family is involved. And as soon as the family is involved, the neighbors are involved. If you’re going to start a revolution, you’ve got to start young.

I’m hoping that there will be discoveries and inventions. Everybody’s trying to find the cure for cancer or get us to Mars, but this is something right here at home where these kids can make a huge difference.

When I was visiting Port Fouchon, I was standing on top of a geo tube, which is like this big piece of fabric that’s kind of mesh fabric that they fill with a slurry of sand and water and they let the water seep out and it basically makes like a giant concrete tube. And that’s how they’ve been laying down coast line out in Lafourche Parish. And I’m standing on this and I’m like, how did someone come up with the idea that they wanted to make a tube of fabric that would now be the coast of Louisiana at the Gulf of Mexico? Those are the things that of course you want your students to be the inventor of. But ultimately, at the end of the day, if Louisiana makes it, that’s all I want. And the new harmonies that will come out of that, I have no idea what those even are. I hope that the kids just every day blow my mind.

Will technology be part of this experiment?

For all the potential students out there listening, we won’t have a no cell phone policy. I think it’s a disservice to students to try to teach them how to survive in this world without the technology they have at their fingertips. But we also want kids to be able to talk to adults and ask questions and be engaged in the community, so we need to really look at the balance between technology and humanity.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at renee@nolavie.com.