Creating high school traditions: KIPP Renaissance makes first homecoming 'A Royal Affair'

ByDanielle Dreilinger

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One day in mid-October, the strains of Engelbert Humperdinck rang out at KIPP Renaissance High School. The 1960s crooner’s recorded voice was competing, however, with the live orders of school administrator and homecoming coordinator Tania Roubion.

“She never walks backwards,” Roubion told the boys. And to a certain girl, she said: “You don’t bend forward. … Remember how big your crown is.” And to the imaginary audience: “And now, the Royal Court will entertain you with the royal waltz.”

Being voted to the KIPP Renaissance homecoming court carried a price, it turned out: several weeks of waltz practice. None of the students could have known that — not Queen Anisha Johnson nor Renaissance Man Tyrin Wiltz, much less senior duke and maid Troy Green and Bethaney Charles, juniors Christopher Winding and Tyveion Jolly or sophomores Excell Dillon and Reion Jones.

Far from “The Last Waltz” that Humperdinck was singing, this homecoming waltz was the school’s first. For KIPP Renaissance, like several of New Orleans post-Katrina charter schools, was working to create traditions that are commonplace at more established schools.

KIPP, a national charter operator, opened its New Orleans middle school the summer before Katrina struck in 2005 and transformed the city’s school system into a decentralized land of choices and charters. KIPP Renaissance High didn’t open until 2010 and began adding a grade each year.

The school was small and focused on college preparation. There was no football program until 2012, and Principal Todd Purvis couldn’t remember any dances last year. But everyone knew they wanted this year, the first with a senior class, to be different.

Roubion, once a member of the McDonogh 35 High Sweetheart Court, called on photographer Lorenzo Lafargue to help create old traditions at a new school. That, it seems, led to the choreography.

“It’s graceful. It is graceful. It’s arms out when you’re told,” Roubion said. Charles rose on her toes. Green stepped smoothly. So did Dillon, who took to waltzing so well that Winding had to up his game. Wiltz and Johnson, on the other hand, bowed out of a special fast hip-hop waltz set to Lorde’s hit “Royals,” begging a preponderance of left feet.

“Great job. Great perseverance,” Roubion said.

Behind the teenagers’ cautious twirls were a whole lot of relatives who’d supported them, in the same way that parents let children walk on Mom and Dad’s feet. Those parents were ready to celebrate the trust they’d placed not only in their students but also in a new, untried school.

Amid rain, ‘the sky’s the limit’

At the homecoming football game on Halloween night, as the wind and rain blew against his T-shirt, Johnson’s father, Anthony Howard, huddled under an umbrella. “Once a queen, always a queen,” read the umbrella, printed with a picture of a 6-year-old Johnson, queen of her daycare center.

“She did a good job,” Howard exulted. “I can’t even tell you how proud we are.” Johnson had in fact attended another high school last year but insisted on coming back to graduate with her class at KIPP.

After high school, the plan is “definitely finish college. That’s a no-brainer. Because school, education, is that important to me,” Howard said. “The sky’s the limit, and I tell her that all the time.”

Tyrin Wiltz’s father, Edward Wiltz, changed his own college major to be able to support his son’s goal of studying agricultural science. They started gardening together once Tyrin began working in a community plot through KIPP. It turned out the charismatic teenager had a touch for plants.

Edward Wiltz couldn’t say enough about what KIPP had done for Tyrin. In previous schools, Tyrin struggled so much that teachers thought he might have a learning disability.

“Going to KIPP brought the best out of him,” the elder Wiltz said. “It was like he was on another planet.” With so few students at the original KIPP Believe middle school, there was lot of individual attention, and the teachers were dedicated.

Before Katrina, Edward Wiltz said, “We had generations and generations of the same repetition,” referring to the low grades of most of New Orleans’ public schools. “KIPP – it’s a different way of thinking, a different environment.”

Was he hoping his son would go to his own alma mater, St. Augustine High? “Yeah, I kind of was,” Wiltz said sheepishly. “I already had plans for him. … But I learned through raising him he wasn’t the average kid.”

The umbrellas all gathered up front as the court made its way across the wet football field for the official presentation. With the rain streaming, all that could be seen was the maids’ bright smiles under their silver cloche hats.

The senior rings

The next morning, many of the same people gathered in the auditorium that KIPP Renaissance shares with Sarah T. Reed High. Despite the rain, KIPP had burned up the field in the second half of the game, scoring 30 points to beat Lake Area 48-18, with the cheerleaders screaming all the way.

Now one by one, the students, some in uniform and some in formal wear, walked across the stage and received a box. It purposely evoked graduation, senior Brian Dixon said from the dais: In accepting the ring, “you are making a commitment to complete this process by walking across another stage.”

The entire ring ceremony had been pulled together just two days earlier by Roubion, who edited the speeches from samples provided by the ring company. In fact, one of the student presenters received her speech just before the ceremony.

Almost half the 99 members of the senior class didn’t show for the ceremony, however. Some decided not to get a ring; others were either recovering from the football game or preparing for the Saturday night homecoming dance, Roubion said.

The seniors in attendance were told the rules. The ring would be worn with the crest facing them until graduation day, when they would turn it outward to the world. Each student should have friends twist the ring 113 times away from the heart, then a person special to the wearer should twist it one final time, toward the heart.

“Let this ring remind you that you are always a member of the founding class of KIPP Renaissance.” — assistant principal Scarlet Feinberg.

As generations of high schoolers have heard, the ring symbolized their lifelong commitment to the school. But these seniors also heard words few students hear: “Let this ring remind you that you are always a member of the founding class of KIPP Renaissance,” assistant principal Scarlet Feinberg said. Wiltz pumped his fist.

Some of the boxes were empty: Families were still paying the rings off. Once again learning from new experience, the administration has decided to change the timetable for next year’s senior class: They’ll start paying for rings this month but not receive them until the spring, so there’s time to complete the purchase before the ceremony. Class rings at Walmart start at about $75; ring companies such as Josten’s can charge much more.

After the ceremony, Theresa “Mama Meka” Arnolie watched her granddaughter pose with friends, hands flared toward the camera like girls who’d just gotten engaged. Arnolie signed a navy graduation robe along with the students. It was going to hang on the wall all year. “They said, ‘That’s for the graduates to sign,'” Arnolie said. “I said, ‘Well, we’ve been along the whole time too.'”

Lafargue, the photographer, had to run home to finish altering the girls’ dance dresses. “My house is reeking blue and gray,” he said.

And Roubion still had a long to-do list: get gifts for the court, vet guests’ requests to come to the dance, review cap-and-gown photo proofs. She was thrilled, however, at a coup she thought would convince hesitant kids to come Saturday night: WQUE FM radio’s Social Shakedown show had agreed to broadcast live from the dance, a rare appearance outside the club scene for the station known as Q93.

“I have to make prom really great because homecoming is going to be so great,” Roubion said.

Said Purvis, “Did you see Troy Green’s ring? It looks like he won the Super Bowl.”

Long gloves and white patent shoes

Less than an hour before the disc jockeys cranked up Saturday night, Roubion was in a hospitality suite at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, helping Jolly pull up her long gloves. “We have to be right on time because they have to go live at 9,” Roubion warned.

Three people were curling Johnson’s hair and brushing sparkly navy shadow on her eyelids.

“I’m not nervous,” Wiltz said, rubbing at a mark on his white patent shoes. He’d had friends turn his ring four times.

Waiting in the ballroom was his mother, Danielle Brown, former Xavier Prep senior maid and parent of three KIPP students. “You take a chance putting them here,” she said. But the high school has “come a long way, a real long way. When they first put us in that school they promised a lot of things … that it would get better every year, and it did.”

Feinberg, the assistant principal, was stationed to take tickets. She noted that longtime KIPPsters were disproportionately represented at the homecoming events. They seemed to have a stronger sense of belonging.

The voice of Drake rang out over the loudspeakers: “We started from the bottom — now we’re here. Started from the bottom, got the whole team here.”

Finally, the big moment arrived. The court glided across the dance floor, the girls’ hands cocked, the boys’ elbows bent. Teacher Liam Kraus read out their gilded biographies, starting with their parentage: “Tyrin Wiltz, the dashing son of Danielle Brown and Edward Wiltz.” Dillon, “the sophisticated son.” Charles, “the classy daughter.”

The court carried off the dance elegantly, even though in all the rehearsals the members hadn’t thought to practice with the girls in gowns and heels. The teachers couldn’t get over it. Many had been with KIPP since its Believe Middle School. Kraus’ jaw hung open as he watched his students twirl. “It’s so amazing,” he said.

By 10 p.m., with the lights low, Q93 blasting and a long line for the portrait photographers, Purvis, the principal, was ready to declare homecoming an unqualified victory – not just as a football game or a fun time for the kids but as a way for the school to establish itself more solidly in the New Orleans landscape.

“I think this week has really built a lot of investment in the school – which was the point,” he said.

Wiltz was ecstatic through endless photos: “I can’t stop smiling – the euphoria, you know?” Charles said it was everything she’d ever imagined and more.

“They are beautiful teenagers celebrating!” DJ Juggie declared to the radio station’s listening audience.

Now that the school had shown it could carry off a New Orleans homecoming, ninth-grade team leader Joey LaRoche was ready to rev up more new traditions. “Sweetheart Dance!” he said. “Prom is obvious. Spring Fling – let’s get them all in.”

Trashawna Campbell, whose daughter, Gaismen, ran against Charles for senior maid, contrasted homecoming’s success with the beginning of KIPP Renaissance. “It was a struggle the first year. I was ready to give up on it. Because the fifth to eighth grade was such smooth sailing,” she said.

She thought KIPP leadership initially struggled to figure out what its New Orleans high school should look like. Renaissance’s school performance score is still two letter grades below the middle school, and founding principal Brian Dassler has moved on to NOCCA.

And parents had expectations. “KIPP is not your traditional high school experience,” Campbell said.

But she added: “They let the parents have input.” Now, “I think they’ve nailed it. They’re where they need to be.”

She enrolled her ninth grader at KIPP Renaissance this year.