Creating high school traditions at KIPP Renaissance: the vote for homecoming courtByDanielle Dreiligner
It was the September sock hop at KIPP Renaissance High School. The less-social teenagers sat on the bleachers in the gymnasium that the charter shares with Sarah T. Reed High School. They bobbed and mouthed words to the music.
In the middle of the basketball court was a group of girls wearing tiara pins, ribbons and a variety of printed white T-shirts: “Vote Me Miss Senior.” “Vote Reion Miss Sophomore.” “Turn Up — Vote Bethaney Miss Senior.”
Daylight shone through the windows: In New Orleans’ all-choice high school system, Renaissance students come from all over the city to Michoud, making evening events impractical.
But even some of the wallflowers tumbled onto the court when DJ Jubilee’s 1997 high school classic “Get Ready, Ready” came on. They danced the steps that no one is entirely sure how to dance and chanted along to the call-and-response portion naming schools, some of which no longer exist, and none of which is theirs:
“What’s the name of your school? Is it Laurel?”
“No!” the teens shouted.
“Is it Rabouin?”
“Is it John Mac?”
“What is it?”
The history of KIPP in New Orleans
The national KIPP network epitomizes the charter movement. Its emphasis on college preparatory curriculum and strict discipline have been so influential that many local charter groups, such as New Orleans College Prep, Collegiate Academies and Crescent City Schools, are sometimes called “KIPP Lite.”
KIPP opened its first New Orleans school just weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. KIPP Phillips Middle School rapidly became KIPP New Orleans West as the administrators held class in Houston instead.
In the fall of 2006, they returned and opened KIPP Believe. The organization typically focuses on middle school and thus didn’t open a high school until 2010. As with many New Orleans charter high schools, KIPP Renaissance has grown one grade per year, starting at ninth grade. So this year marks the first senior class.
“We are the first graduating class of seniors,” said homecoming court candidate Bethaney Charles, 17. “So this is the first year of everything.” The first homecoming game and dance. The first senior ring ceremony. The first senior gift to the school. The first senior picnic and trip. And not at all least, the first senior college applications.
As such, KIPP and other new charter high schools are trying to create their own traditions, their own ceremonies, their own high school memories. After all, how does a school throw a homecoming when it has no alumni to come home?
Charles and her peers are heavily involved in ACT preparation, Advanced Placement coursework and college scholarship applications. But they’re also having fun, with a perhaps unexpected emphasis from the school on making the senior year feel like New Orleans.
Maybe this year’s homecoming will finally put the school on the map — or in the DJ Jubilee song.
To create new traditions, staff and students turned to the past.
KIPP administrator Tania Roubion, a warm taskmaster, took her inspiration from her own high school years at McDonogh 35. She consulted yearbooks and friends and also considered homecoming traditions at historically black universities; KIPP Renaissance’s student body has always been over 96 percent black.
The homecoming court would have seven members: a king and queen, sophomore and junior maids and dukes and a senior maid. (The roles were also referred to as Miss and Mr. Sophomore, Junior, etc., and Renaissance Man/Woman.) Roubion figured girls would be more interested in running than boys, and she was correct: Four boys ran for king, but the junior and sophomore dukes ran unopposed.
Such endeavors might be considered frivolous next to college and scholarship applications in a city still struggling to improve its high school graduation rate, college degree attainment and income. But Roubion thought these traditions were mportant “to solidify our place in this city.”
It also mattered for the school’s recruiting. “If I were a student today, would I choose KIPP?” Roubion said. “I felt we weren’t offering everything we could have.”
Principal Todd Purvis agreed. He wanted KIPP Renaissance to be “a comprehensive high school” offering both a rigorous curriculum and the classic New Orleans high school experience. The school even put money for senior events in the budget.
Furthermore, Purvis and Roubion thought the experience of campaigning for homecoming court built character. Students would learn how to reach out to new people and compete constructively against their friends.
Really, Roubion thought, the civics benefits of a homecoming court campaign were the same at any school. It’s just that a new school must spell it out for students.
“Being a local, I know what traditions mean to us,” Roubion said. “I want our students to walk away saying, ‘My grandmother didn’t know about this school, but my grandchildren will.'”
Homecoming court candidates had to have a 2.5 GPA, no suspensions and a maximum of four detentions. Candidates could woo votes by giving away school supplies such as bookmarks and pencils, but not food and candy. Nothing was supposed to interfere with the school’s usual operations. Disqualification, Roubion warned, was entirely possible.
If anything, she was stricter than Purvis. Would it be OK to hand out campaign T-shirts? Roubion frowned: “Technically, they’re out of uniform.”
“I said yes,” Purvis said.
Why they ran
Many New Orleans high schools either never reopened after Hurricane Katrina – Booker T. Washington, John F. Kennedy – or reopened but then closed again -Douglass, L. E. Rabouin. L.B. Landry and O. Perry Walker merged this summer. Generally, alumni have mourned the loss of those schools and their history.
But three senior Renaissance homecoming candidates had known nothing but KIPP for more than seven years, and they started talking about senior year long before it began in August. They said they were building their own traditions, and that they dreamed of leaving their mark.
“I’ve been with KIPP for a long time,” said Troy Green, so becoming homecoming king felt “like a good goal for me.” The football player and dancer, tall but quiet, painted his house key — which he wears around his neck so he won’t lose it — KIPP blue. His little brother also attends Renaissance and was canvassing his classmates to get them to go Green.
That helps when you’re running against your longtime buddy, Tyrin Wiltz, who happens to have a wide smile and outgoing personality. Wiltz boasted he was a “full KIPPster” – there since 2006. For high school, he turned down his father’s alma mater, St. Augustine, for KIPP. Some of his campaign posters showed his old KIPP Believe class photos.
If he becomes the school’s first homecoming king, he said, “I’m always remembered.” He sat up straight and settled his shoulders. “They’re going to always know Tyrin Wiltz.”
Granted, some candidates didn’t exactly know the duties of the homecoming court. “The homecoming king should show up at the football game and – be there?” Wiltz said. “See, we never did it, so we don’t know how it’s supposed to be.”
He knew there was going to be some dancing involved and said he was fine with that, though he lacked Green’s aptitude. Dancing would be a small price to pay for establishing a whole new set of traditions.
“We build what we want,” Wiltz said. “We’re KIPP. It’s our own school. We create it. Let’s represent.”
Charles had a more personal reason for running. Last year, she said, “I said I wasn’t running. I said I wasn’t going to do it.” Her best friend, Sharmaine White, “always said she wanted to do the homecoming thing.”
But White was killed in a car wreck over the summer. So Charles and Sharmaine’s sister, Shyenne, decided to run as a slate – Senior Maid and Homecoming Queen – in her memory.
The day of the vote
The problem with inventing traditions from scratch is that something is always overlooked.
Purvis fretted over a stack of completed ballots: Sophomore maid was a tie. “We didn’t come up with a runoff procedure,” he said. He also had less than an hour to complete his own last task: “I’m supposed to find a political concession speech so I can talk about graceful winning and losing.”
The candidates had clearly gotten into the campaign. The halls were hung with posters trimmed in yellow feathers and leopard-print balloons. One of queen candidate Anisha Johnson’s posters had blinking lights plus the slogan “I came to win.”
Several of Wiltz’s posters boasted cutouts of his face glued to goofy magazine photos – a guy in a bathtub, for instance – with a thought bubble written in: “I am the spirit of 2014.” Junior duke candidate Christopher Winding made posters even though he ran unopposed.
Campaigning had been clean, Roubion said with an air of relief — both in the school and on social media.
Finally Purvis found a few late students to cast belated votes to break the sophomore maid tie. The candidates trooped into the library for the official announcement.
“I’m beaucoup nervous!” Johnson said.
Winding wasn’t: The unopposed junior duke knew he’d won. “I still want you to say it, though!” he begged Purvis.
“Why?” Purvis said.
“It sounds so good,” Winding said.
Purvis praised their fortitude in campaigning and reminded all that winning wasn’t the point. He said he learned more from the high school campaign that he lost than the one he won. The candidates twisted in their chairs.
“Graceful winners, graceful losers. That’s what we’re all about,” Purvis reminded them.
He read the names. Kewante Holmes was voted sophomore maid, Excell Dillon sophomore duke, Tyveion Jolly junior maid and, yes, Christopher Winding junior duke. Charles won senior maid.
Student voters didn’t care about the slates of candidates: Johnson edged out Charles’ running mate, Shyenne White, for queen.
Then Purvis announced … senior duke. What? He and Roubion had secretly created an extra office to reward the runner-up for king.
“Troy!” Purvis said.
When Wiltz was named king, Green clapped him on the shoulder in pride.
Afterward, Johnson said that despite her nervousness, “I really feel like I was made for it.” In fact, she was more interested in homecoming queen than prom queen because “for prom queen you don’t campaign, you don’t get to know the students.”
And even though winning was what she’d come for, Johnson had gleaned the civics lesson. “I always wanted to run for president. In middle school, for career day, I dressed up as the president,” she said.
Afterwards, Wiltz and Green walked out together. Green had football practice.
The homecoming game takes place Thursday, 7 p.m., at Pan American Stadium in City Park: KIPP Renaissance versus Lake Area New Tech High School.