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Many New Orleans students dream about going to college and earning a better future for themselves and for the city. It’s especially true at the city’s KIPP charter schools, which symbolize the college-preparatory mindset that took hold after Hurricane Katrina.
After graduating its first high school class in 2014, KIPP New Orleans started a program to help its alumni buck low national college completion rates. Last year, several shared their stories in the NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune series Higher Ground. As another set of families celebrates the end of high school, we returned to our featured KIPP alumni to catch up on their lives.
1. Larionne Clark ’14
Larionne started at her dream school: Loyola University New Orleans. But finances meant she had a long commute, and poor freshman advising left her with a course to make up over the summer. She ended up transferring to Northwestern State in Natchitoches and had a much smoother sophomore year.
Larionne is in the home stretch, preparing to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Since transferring, “I’ve gained a lot of confidence in what I want from myself and what is expected of me. The financial aid has also helped tremendously,” she said.
She plans to move to Houston with her grandfather and work toward starting a community resource center where young people can learn about their rights, with a couch and kitchen if they’re between houses. She’s working at a group home now to gain experience.
The center will be called For Keepsake, “basically meaning I am my family, brother or sister’s keeper,” she said.
2. Jaleel Green ’15
Jaleel, a singer, dancer and actor, was inspired by his parents as they completed their own college coursework. He won a Posse scholarship to attend Bard College in New York and threw himself into every opportunity he could.
Jaleel finished his sophomore year by successfully moderating into the theater and performance program, which is a competitive process at Bard. He’ll work on the dance portion in the fall.
This summer he’s home in New Orleans interning for KIPP and performing in “Hairspray: The Musical” with The Company in St. Bernard.
“This year has been a big year for me as far as growth,” Jaleel said. “I have always told myself that if I continued to work hard, everything would fall into place. I can truly see this happening in my life.”
3. Joshua Johnson ’14
Joshua Johnson left Xavier University of Louisiana to find a cheaper college when his mother lost her job — not realizing that the university would withhold his transcript because he had a balance on his student account. As of fall 2016, he was working in the hospitality industry and pursuing his dream of becoming a New Orleans police officer, which would also pay for college.
Joshua is now trying to join the New Orleans Police Department as an office employee, he said. He took the required polygraph test June 7.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’ll be okay. I’ll pass,” he said.
4. Keishunn Johnson ’14
Keishunn, KIPP New Orleans’ first valedictorian, had a full ride to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He got over his shyness but struggled to stay focused during a family crisis: his brother Joseph got into a car accident in December 2015, resulting in both of his legs being amputated.
Keishunn is interning this summer in Washington, D.C., at New Orleans Congressman Cedric Richmond’s office, he said. Law school is still the plan, but he might work for a year first.
Joseph has also made a lot of progress, walking with prostheses and welcoming a new baby.
Keishunn has enough credits to graduate in December but decided to study abroad in Spain instead. KIPP helped him pay for his passport. It should arrive in the beginning of July, he said.
How did KIPP’s counseling plans pan out?
Seeing that grads struggled to find flexible part-time jobs, KIPP New Orleans started an internal work-study program last fall, employing 14 alumni. How’d it go?
“KIPP: Corps was a big success,” spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said May 30. The younger students said they benefited from seeing “someone who had literally been in their shoes.” The participants appreciated the opportunity to make up hours during break, and all stayed in college. KIPP is continuing the program next year.
New this fall: The office is restructuring to assign all the alumni not in college to a dedicated counselor.
National college completion rates are highly unequal by income. This graph shows the percentage of students who entered college and earned a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24. About one-quarter of the lowest-income freshmen finished college compared to three-quarters of the wealthiest.
In 2013-14, all but 6 percent of KIPP Renaissance students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, according to state data, putting them statistically in the lower parts of this graph.
KIPP graduates are doing better than that
The national organization founded KIPP Through College in 2011, when it found that one-third of its graduates had earned a bachelor’s degree — better than the norm, but not good enough. As of 2015, graduation rates were noticeably better.
The KIPP Renaissance Class of 2014
KIPP New Orleans officials cautioned that it’s not been long enough to draw real conclusions. Close to half the Renaissance Class of 2014 was in college three years out — on track to match KIPP’s national graduation rate, and on or slightly above track of projections.
There are a growing number of alumni not in college. However, that’s because there are more alumni, period, Bertsch said, not because the dropout rate went up.
And away they go …
As for KIPP Renaissance’s Class of 2017, 88 percent have college plans and 7 percent are going into the military, either active duty or the reserves and then college, New Orleans program director Larry Murphy said.
The students have earned $5 million in merit-based college scholarships, not including Louisiana’s TOPS, Bertsch said.
Including KIPP middle school graduates who did not attend Renaissance, New Orleans is looking at about 1,000 college-aged alumni. They’ll have their annual reunion crawfish boil Friday (June 9).