City that loved and lost high school football finally gets it back

By Emmanuel Felton
KIPP Renaissance football players, seen from the back

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It was homecoming week, and for the first time there was a buzz in the halls of KIPP Renaissance Charter High School about Friday’s big football game. Students were discussing plans to go, and alumni were coming by the school in the city’s 9th Ward to buy tickets.

For a team used to double-digit defeats against bigger, better-financed opponents, and that for a while struggled even to get its players to show up for games, it was a turning point.

“It really felt good to wake up this morning and come to school,” said Gary Martin, a 17-year-old senior who has been on the Renaissance football team since 10th grade. “When the football team is doing well, it correlates with other good stuff. It creates a positive vibe in the building.”

The 5-foot-5 slot receiver started playing football when he was 5 years old. His mother, Tyra Hales, signed him up for a youth team at a park near their home in Gentilly, a predominantly black neighborhood that was inundated by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters for weeks in 2005. When they returned to New Orleans four years later, Hales enrolled him at KIPP Believe, a middle school that was established the year after the hurricane by a national charter school chainfocused on getting black and Latino students to and through college. (The acronym stands for Knowledge is Power Program.)

Martin liked KIPP Believe, but when he was looking at high schools, he was apprehensive about enrolling at KIPP Renaissance, which opened in 2010. “At KIPP, I knew the teachers cared about me and my grades, but I wanted a school that would support me with football,” he said. His mother, on the other hand, was more focused on preparing her son for college. In fall 2013, she persuaded Martin to enroll at KIPP, in part by pointing to the fledgling varsity team the school had fielded that year.

Hurricane Katrina upended many of this city’s customs and institutions, but arguably no change has been more indelible than the transformation of New Orleans’s public schools. In the wake of the storm that left 80 percent of the city underwater, lawmakers pushed through a bill that turned over nearly every New Orleans public school to the state. The state, in turn, put most of the city’s historically black schools into the hands of a new class of leaders, many of them white transplants. Now, more than a decade after the storm, all but four of the city’s more than 80 public schools operate as charter schools, which private organizations run using public funds.

The city’s educational experiment, ripping up nearly an entire district to replace it with the new model, meant charters here, including KIPP Renaissance, were under intense pressure to show academic results — fast. School leaders concentrated on raising the city’s abysmal test scores and graduation rates. Football wasn’t a priority.

By almost every academic measure, the schools are better than they were before Katrina. But many locals complain that their schools, which operate independently from the city’s elected school board, ignore their concerns.

Thousands of local black teachers were fired and replaced with a much whiter teaching force, while strict “no excuses” discipline policies resulted in thousands of students being suspended and expelled. Graduation rates are up, but charter leaders are cognizant of the bad taste their methods left for many in their adopted town. They’re trying to hire more black teachers and are reaching out to alumni groups of the schools that they supplanted. And they’re embracing football.

“In New Orleans, Friday night football is a big deal,” said Joey LaRoche, who became the principal of KIPP Renaissance in 2013. “And it’s not just about what’s happening on the field. It’s about the band playing in the stands. It’s about the alumni that come back to support the school. It was something that was a part of my high school experience, and my kids deserve to love high school like I did.”

If charters are not offering all of those things, LaRoche, a black New Orleans native, added, “You are not doing justice to the history of this place, and you are colonizing.”

The Lessons of Frederick Douglass

A school has stood on St. Claude Avenue between Alvar and Pauline streets in the 9th Ward since the 1880s. At one point it was named for Francis T. Nicholls, a former Louisiana governor who served as a general in the Confederate Army. When the first black students enrolled in the formerly all-white school in 1967, violence and reminders of the school’s racist history confronted them daily. The teams were named the Rebels, and the student newspaper was called The Rebel Yell. White students affectionately called the school “Rebelville.”

As white students emptied out of New Orleans public schools over the next couple of decades, the Rebels became the Bobcats. Finally, in the mid-1990s, amid a citywide push to purge public institutions of names celebrating the Confederacy, the school was renamed Frederick Douglass High School. The Douglass name was a symbol of black self-determination in a struggling city where the white population had plummeted from nearly 400,000 to fewer than 200,000 in the years after school integration. But the Douglass name had been on the building for less than two decades when state officials handed over the campus to KIPP.

The move to replace public schools with charters prompted fierce resistance around the city, and the fight to save Douglass was particularly messy. Douglass alumni and 9th Ward residents were livid after superintendent Paul Vallas, who was brought down from Philadelphia to turn around the city’s school system after Katrina, argued that the community hadn’t cared about Douglass for 40 years.

Douglass was the worst-performing school in the state in 2008. But groups opposed to the closure blamed neglect by the city and state. And the Douglass community worried about the fate of the band and athletics programs that they had worked to rebuild after Katrina. They organized to come up with solutions to address falling enrollment and a history of poor academic performance. Yet the fate of the school ultimately rested in the state capital, Baton Rouge, and the locals couldn’t persuade state officials to preserve it. KIPP Renaissance moved into the building in 2010, adding a new grade each year until it fully ousted Douglass in 2014.

The school’s administrators embraced a model of discipline borrowed from KIPP’s middle school campuses, taking a harsh stance on talking in the hallways and other minor infractions. During the 2012-13 school year, Renaissance had one of the highest suspension rates in the city. But the “no excuses” discipline didn’t translate into academic improvement. In 2013, the school narrowly avoided an F rating on Louisiana’s school accountability system.

KIPP Renaissance’s first principal, Brian Dassler, a white man who moved to New Orleans after Katrina, had offered an olive branch to the community. “I hope that as the Douglass community gets more familiar with us and as we get more familiar with the Douglass community,” he told The Times-Picayune after the takeover was finalized, “it will be a partnership.” But relations remained strained.

At last year’s homecoming game, KIPP officials asked the announcer to give a shout-out to Douglass alumni. Covering all the bases, the announcer even mentioned Nicholls. The response in the KIPP stands was anemic.

It was a sharp contrast to what was happening on the other side of the field. KIPP’s opponent that night, Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, had retained its pre-Katrina name. And even though the football wasn’t good — fumbles and interceptions plagued both teams — the Clark stands were packed with alumni.

“We are diehard fans,” Tory Douse, 53, a member of Clark’s graduating class of 1982, said from his spot at the top of the bleachers surrounded by other Clark alumni from the early 1980s. “We come out to support them. We want to give the kids some kind of the sense of community that we had.”

Other college prep charters say they’re embracing football after years of hesitation for the same reasons as Renaissance: to provide students a more well-rounded education, build school spirit and mend fences with the community. Rhonda Dale, principal at Abramson Sci Academy, located on the former Marion Abramson High School campus in New Orleans East, says she’s tracked the progress of her charter school’s new team by the growing size of her incoming freshmen: “Our incoming ninth-graders just used to be different — physically.”

Dale, who was one of Sci’s first teachers in 2008, admitted that embracing football came with trade-offs. Paying for a football team means that the school doesn’t offer the high-intensity college coaching and guidance programs found at other highly regarded college prep charter schools across the country.

“We could have continued to specialize, but we recognize that we are the only big high school in New Orleans East, and to serve our community we felt like we needed to be a comprehensive high school,” said Dale. “We wanted to serve our community and connect with our alumni by not just taking on the name but also truly serving that community like Abramson had. It’s about bridging the gap that people felt between charter schools and their communities. This homecoming we had alums come from as far as Houston and Florida to see their team.”

The feel-good motivations of connecting with community and getting students more engaged in school aren’t the only reasons charters are investing in football teams. In New Orleans, there are simply more public high school seats than there are students interested in filling them. Football is another way to win the enrollment battle.

Throwing out the game plan

LaRoche became KIPP Renaissance’s fourth principal in four years in 2013. A graduate of Eleanor McMain, a magnet school in uptown New Orleans, he had been teaching at KIPP schools since 2008, the year he moved back home after getting a degree from Vanderbilt University. His new role as principal would be tough: Fewer than half of KIPP’s students had passed state tests administered earlier that year. He said KIPP was always committed to offering a full high school experience alongside a strong college prep program, but first he had to address the school’s test scores. At the center of his strategy was reducing sky-high teacher and student turnover by creating a school culture that made students and educators want to stick around.

The school jettisoned its “no excuses” policy, provided more training to teachers and tried to attract more locals to the faculty. LaRoche also sought to invest more in extracurriculars. The school already had basketball, baseball and lacrosse. A football team was formed in 2012 and went varsity during LaRoche’s first year.

“At its root, KIPP makes a promise to students and families that we are going to get you to college,” said LaRoche. “All the things we do are in service to that. When we think about high school, these programs that might feel extra are actually essential. I mean sports. I mean arts. I mean band.”

By 2015, Renaissance had earned a B rating from the state. In 2016, it became the first high school created after Katrina to attain Louisiana’s coveted A grade. LaRoche was named Louisiana high school principal of the year.

But the football team struggled to match the school’s academic gains. So in January 2016, LaRoche hired a new head coach, Corey McCloud, who had experience coaching in high school, college and the NFL. McCloud had been a part-time coach at Morehouse College and got his first full-time college job at Savannah State. After a brief stint with the Arizona Cardinals came to an end in 2012, he returned to his roots in New Orleans to coach high school. While LaRoche said he couldn’t remember the specific cuts the school made to fund the football team, he added that as the school’s academic performance improved, it could spend less on the techniques used to turn around the original anemic scores.

McCloud began laying the framework for success that spring, working with players who weren’t participating in second-semester sports. The players in his spring training sessions started to spread the word that things would be different in the coming season. Practices were disciplined, coaches stayed late, and the more intense culture helped McCloud persuade most of the team to attend Renaissance’s summer training camp.

For the school’s 50 football players, LaRoche’s enthusiasm for sports, and his hiring of the football coach in particular, made an almost immediate difference in the culture of the 500-student school. Wide receiver Martin was impressed when, just a few weeks after McCloud arrived in January, he started getting on one of the team’s best players about his grades.

“It was crazy. Coach McCloud didn’t really know him, but he held him to a standard like he had been knowing him his whole life,” Martin recalled. “That made me realize things were changing. I don’t really remember anyone getting chastised about their grades [before]. The biggest change Coach McCloud has made is that he holds us to a higher standard.”

Senior Aaron Ganier said that once the players saw how much effort McCloud was putting in, they felt obligated to follow suit. “If he is giving his all, taking time away from his family and spending it with us, we had to put the work in,” he said. “I felt like we as a team should do two times what he is doing, because we never had someone to stand up and do the things.”

Beating the competition

Before his mother persuaded him to try KIPP, Martin had his heart set on either Edna Karr or Warren Easton. Both schools have A-rated academics and were among the 15 schools with high enough test scores before Katrina to escape the state takeover. And while they are both now charter schools — city leaders are intent on turning the entire system charter eventually — these schools have been relatively unscathed by the reforms that have taken place since Katrina. Extracurriculars such as football and band returned as soon as these schools reopened after the storm. School leaders, many who were educators in New Orleans before Katrina, never alienated alumni.

Charters were created in part to foster competition in public schooling and spur improvement in district schools. That was the idea behind the New Orleans charter revolution too. But, faced with a set of high-performing traditional public institutions that offered the complete high school experience, charter high schools got a taste of their own medicine. Eric Milton, the athletic director at Clark, which is run by the charter group FirstLine, said competition for students is a major driver of the school’s recent investment in football. “It’s no surprise that the schools that are winning championships and have good bands, schools like Edna Karr, Warren Easton, are getting something like 1,500 kids applying for 200 spots,” he said.

After years of doubting his choice, Martin was confident heading into the 2017 season. He believed he was building a strong chemistry with his fellow receivers. But by late September, it appeared the team was headed for another disappointing fall. Renaissance lost four grueling non-division games in a row. “We set a goal at the beginning of this year, we were going to have no losses and we were going to go to the Superdome,” Ganier recalled, referring to the stadium where the state championships are played. “When we started to take losses, I could see people starting to get down.”

The turnaround began in late September in a game against Belle Chasse High School, a much bigger suburban school. Ganier had been the team’s quarterback last year, but he was switched to wide receiver after missing summer practice to be with his mom, who had moved to Omaha, Nebraska, for a better-paying job. Staring down a fourth loss, the coaches decided to try Ganier at quarterback again.

The team put up 20 points in the second half of a 47-20 defeat. On Oct. 6, in their first division game, Ganier started at quarterback for the first time that year and led the team to a 48-6 win over Thomas Jefferson, a suburban magnet school that commentators expected to dominate its division.

On Oct. 14, a Saturday, they faced Sophie B. Wright Charter School, another school founded after Katrina with a relatively new team that had also struggled. KIPP’s players knew that if they won the game they would be poised to take the district title, finally establishing the five-year-old football program as a force to be reckoned with.

The game stayed close all night, and after a successful two-point conversion by Wright at the end of the third quarter, KIPP was down 14-13.

“Last year, if it was 13 to 14, everybody would’ve have gotten down on themselves,” Ganier said. “But now that we have leaders on the team, we don’t give up. We know it’s a war out there. We have to compete. If we lay down, they are going to keep shoving us to the ground.”

Wright’s lead was brief. Senior Cedric Williams returned Wright’s kickoff to the 46-yard line. Ganier and freshman running back Zhi Thomas had 15- and 18-yard runs, respectively. That set up Ganier for a 5-yard touchdown pass to Martin.

After holding Wright’s offense at bay during the fourth quarter, the players couldn’t mask their joy. They nailed McCloud with a cooler of Gatorade.

After the win, Martin said the football team finally started to get respect after years of being barraged with trash talk by classmates. That Monday, Ganier heard a girl in his second-period class saying that she was going to the homecoming game because she was sure “we’re going to win.” Sitting there, Ganier thought, “Wait, last year you never said WE’RE going to do anything.”

College vs. culture

Not everyone in the community is completely sold on football. Tasheema James sends her daughter and son to KIPP and goes to football games to watch her daughter perform with the school’s flag team. James gets up and dances along in the stands, mimicking her daughter’s routines perfectly. While she thinks football is helping Renaissance build much-needed school spirit, she wouldn’t dream of letting her son, who is tall with broad shoulders, play a game she says is “very, very dangerous.”

“My son is not playing,” James said. “When people ask about it, I just say, ‘I’m saving his brain.’ ”

The resurgence of football in New Orleans is occurring even as participation in high school football is decreasing nationally, down 2.5 percent this year over last year. The shift comes amid mounting concern over the risks involved when teenage boys run into each other headfirst. Of particular concern is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease that some researchers say affects virtually all professional football players. One recent study found that brain trauma is also widespread among high school football players.

Despite her reservations, James said KIPP’s football program is helping the school strike the right balance between the old and new New Orleans.

“You had all of these new teachers come from out of state, and they changed the culture. You bring in the new, and you had to trade out some of the old,” she said. “I’m glad some things are different, I’m happy about all the new opportunities, but these charter school people are learning just like the kids are learning.”

LaRoche said he doesn’t see a conflict between football and long-term academic success, despite research suggesting the adverse effects the game can have on the brains of young players. The school’s core focus on college permeates the school’s football culture, and the coaching job here is part guidance counselor.

“We stay up on the conversation about concussions, but I see the different trainings that the coaches and players have to do,” said LaRoche. “We spend thousands of dollars to make sure the helmets are still up to standards. We haven’t experienced a problem. I don’t fear about it much anymore.”

The first thing McCloud did when he arrived at Renaissance in January was to figure out how to get weekly progress reports on his players. Ganier said McCloud also is bringing recruiters to the school for the first time. “Colleges after colleges, coaches were coming here to speak to one of us to see what’s going on. We never had that before,” he said.

KIPP Renaissance has won basketball and baseball titles, but in New Orleans, football can unite an entire campus more than any other sport can. On fall weekends, more than 150 students, nearly a third of the student body, pile onto school buses headed to football games. “That’s the band, cheerleaders, dancers, the flag team, majorettes, the color guard. Everyone is there to support the football team and make sure they feel they can do their best on the field,” said Lloyd Odem, a junior who plays tuba in the band. From 3:30 to 6 p.m. during the fall, while the football team is practicing outdoors, the school’s halls and classrooms are taken over by these other squads, all practicing for their big Friday night performances.

“For the band, performing at football games offer you a chance to show your musicianship,” said Christopher Plummer, Renaissance’s drum major. “You have two or three hours to show what your band is really made of, versus only having 15 minutes on the parade route. We work hard at practice every day and it pays off at the games, where we really show out.”

Da’Janae’ Edwards, co-captain of the dance team, can attest to how having a winning football team has changed KIPP. “I feel like everybody is starting to get school spirit now and it’s just fun,” said Edwards. “The football team has a big impact on that because people used to not go out to games because they felt like if we are going to lose, why should I go and support them? Now that we’ve been doing better and getting better at our extracurriculars, it’s like everybody has been getting more pride in our school.”

Football helped bring Shenita Williams, Nicholls’ homecoming queen of 1993, back into the fold. She had seen the school band marching in a Mardi Gras parade and noticed that they were using the old Bobcats mascot. “I didn’t know the school was back open,” she said.

She went to last year’s homecoming game and said there was an even bigger crowd this year. Williams is exactly the kind of alum charter leaders have been looking for. “Right now, we are trying to raise money to send the kids to Panama, and we purchased some custom football socks for the team,” she said. “I wish I could do more. I’m trying to make up for lost time.”

KIPP Renaissance continued the winning streak into homecoming week with a 21-14 win over Cohen College Prep, locking down the division title. The team fell in the first round of the playoffs, but McCloud was named coach of the year and Ganier was the district’s most valuable player. Martin, who was recognized as one of the best receivers in the district, no longer regrets going to a charter school without a football legacy. He believes he and his teammates were given a unique opportunity to help build not just the kind of team they dreamed of but also the kind of high school that people will seek out.

“When one of my cousins is choosing a high school, he will remember that year where KIPP did go to the playoffs, that year where KIPP really got established,” he said. “That’s one thing that keeps me pushing: I just think about the people who are coming after me.”

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