KIPP Renaissance grad Jaleel Green seeks a bigger stage

ByDanielle Dreilinger

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KIPP Renaissance High School alumnus Jaleel Green went farther away than almost anyone else in his graduating class, to a totally new environment: a small, largely white college in the Northeast.

He could have felt out of place. Instead, armed with a scholarship that tied him into a tight network at Bard College, he thrived.

It’s not exactly a stress-free existence. As he prepared for a spring festival, Jaleel ran from theater class to dance practice to singing alone in an empty theater, thronged at almost every moment by a multitude of friends. About the only activity missing from his calendar was sleep.

“I always want to go all out,” he said. “Like 110 percent all the time.”

Doing the unthinkable

Jaleel’s parents both wanted to go to college, but instead they put their four children first. After graduating from Francis T. Nicholls High School in the 9th Ward, Raquel Green dedicated herself to her young family. Jerome Green worked in law enforcement and thought it would be selfish to spend his limited free time in a classroom. Eventually they started their own security business, and the kids would play under the desk.

Raquel wanted to show her children that “this was a household that valued education,” she said. “Children don’t do what you say. They do what you do.” Jerome went on school field trips. At night, the family read for an hour; every Friday, they visited Barnes & Noble.

Sixteen years after graduating from high school, Raquel enrolled at Loyola University, where she would earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She now works in the KIPP Central City Primary office and teaches Latin dance while preparing to take the LSAT. Jerome would eventually enter the same undergraduate program, graduating from Loyola in May.

Raquel’s decision to enroll at Loyola gave Jaleel an unexpected advantage when the family returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: priority status to enroll at Lusher Charter, one of the city’s top elementary schools.

Jaleel loved Lusher. He had only one problem: math. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the subject. No one slowed down to help him, Raquel said. When Jaleel’s fourth-grade state test scores came in, Lusher held him back. But the second time through the material, he still didn’t understand.

Raquel prayed for help with her son. When she drove her children to Lusher, she saw a sign advertising a new middle school, KIPP Believe. At the end of the year, she called, and enrolled Jaleel in KIPP summer camp. To everyone’s surprise, he learned in two weeks what he hadn’t grasped at Lusher in two years.

“I just remember those sparks going off,” Jaleel said.

“He was happy. He was at peace. I hadn’t seen that in a long time,” Raquel said. And KIPP shared her and Jerome’s vision, emphasizing college.

So she did the unthinkable, in New Orleans, pulling her son from Lusher and moving him to KIPP Believe. Jaleel can still rattle off the song KIPP taught him to memorize his times tables.

He applied to Lusher for high school. When he didn’t get a spot, he went on to KIPP Renaissance High, supplementing it with afternoons at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the city’s public arts school.

The ‘Bardy Bunch’

KIPP helped Jaleel apply for a scholarship from the Posse Foundation. The organization partners with around 60 colleges that provide a “posse” of public school graduates with tuition each year.

Students from New Orleans, looking at colleges, “We just kind of set our sights on what’s here,” he said. KIPP was instrumental in “pushing me out of that and saying, ‘You can be so much more.’”

Because Jaleel hadn’t visited Bard College, he was a little nervous when he arrived on the woodsy, rural campus. It was so quiet that he got lost his first night and called security in a panic, “thinking I heard, like, bears or something.”

But from the start, he had a network at the school. They’re so tight, they call each other the Bardy Bunch.

They included fellow Posse scholars: nine freshmen from the New Orleans area, 10 from Atlanta and upperclassmen who treated Jaleel like their little brother. His student mentor sat him down for 45 minutes to choose fall classes; his faculty mentor met with him every other week. Bard’s diversity support office offers counseling and a hangout space as well.

“I can’t imagine being there walking this journey alone,” he said.

Jaleel made plenty of white friends, he said. However, he gravitated toward organizations such as the Brothers at Bard peer mentorship group and the Latin dance club. “The students of color on campus stick together,” he said. “There’s not a lot of us.”

His parents checked in regularly via video chat. Both father and son were taking introductory psychology, and they commiserated over the work. Raquel and Jaleel joked about his newfound passion for Latin dance, reminding him of all those times he had rebuffed her offers to teach him more than the basics.

With all that support, “It’s almost like there’s no excuse to fail,” Jaleel said.

Still, he admitted he sometimes felt homesick. His KIPP counselor sent Zapp’s potato chips.

“That went a long way,” he said.

A culminating night 

A less buoyant personality than Jaleel’s would surely sink under the weight of his packed days, which just got heavier as the end of freshman year approached and he crammed in all the fun he could.

On the day Jaleel performed in an international cultural showcase, he had enough time to race to the dining hall between classes — but not enough to wait for lunch.

He was supposed to be nursing an injury, yet he’d stayed up past midnight rehearsing. He still had to squeeze in a practice session for his weekend’s vocal recital. And he simply ignored the fact that he’d woken up feeling so awful he almost went to the health clinic.

At 4 p.m., as students gathered for the performance, his Latin dance group was still adjusting its routine.

The emcees hollered for students to move in close, and the showcase began. Dancers came and went in a global whirl: Korean pop, Bollywood. Jaleel, it seemed, was everywhere: stomping and clapping with the step team; arching his back and slithering a leg around his salsa partner; struggling into a new shirt for an African dance; taking the stage alone, his tenor voice soaring.

Afterwards he kicked back, plate piled high with Indian food, surrounded by friends, laughing and talking.

It was the kind of night Jaleel dreams about. When he thinks about his future, “I imagine myself on stage,” he said. “I want to touch people’s hearts and make people smile.

“I’m going to show the world I’m a force to be reckoned with.”