Local Feature: Mid-City Messenger

March 4th, 2020

New Harmony High School arrives in Bayou St. John neighborhood

Posted by  at 11:50 am – September 10, 2019 

New Harmony students in front of their campus at Our Lady of the Rosary on Esplanade Avenue. (newharmonyhigh.org)

There are some new kids in the Bayou St. John neighborhood, about 100 of them. New Harmony High School moved into Our Lady of the Rosary school building on Esplanade Avenue in August.

The “harmony” in the school’s name is the natural balance that has been lost in Louisiana’s coastal communities, school officials say. The New Harmony curriculum focuses on coastal restoration and preservation.

Lessons on hurricanes, sea-level rise and other effects of climate change, for example, help students learn math, physics and chemistry. Whether or not students are planning a career in environmental science, they learn by viewing through its lens.

The open-enrollment public school also takes its lessons out of the classroom, with internships, field trips and service projects. “We are rethinking high school,” said Anthony Burrell, the school’s community coordinator. “This is not a place where kids stay confined to the school and learn the curriculum through textbooks only.”

New Harmony, a state charter school, is in its second year and its second location. It spent its inaugural year in the former St. Rose de Lima church campus knowing that the Waldorf School would take over the location in the Bayou Road neighborhood beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

With the Esplanade Avenue location, the school could stay in the same area with the added advantage of being steps from Bayou St. John and walking distance to City Park. Ninth-graders who were recently reading a study on how being in greenspace affects mood tested the findings by attending class on the banks of bayou.

Ninth-graders visit Dauphin Island during the first week of school. (newharmonyhigh.org)

The school’s founders, a group that included educators and environmental scientists, envisioned a school not just near the water but on the water. They wanted to put the school on a barge that would take students up and down the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. But turning that dream into reality turned out to be cost-prohibitive, Burrell said.

School officials are still looking for a more permanent location, ideally near the river, but plan to lease from the church long enough that the current group of ninth- and 10th-graders — a new grade will be added each year — can stay through their graduation.

“With schools here moving around so much, it can be hard on students. We want to build a connection in the community and the people here,” Burrell said. “That broadens the kids’ perspective. They connect to a place, connect with the people, get a sense of what’s out here. Especially at their age, it shapes who you are.”

One drawback to the location is that, as part of its $20,833.33-a-month lease agreement, the school has to vacate the premises on every Jazz Fest day so the church can have full use of property for Fest parking. This falls at the time students are preparing for end-of-year testing, Burrell said, so school officials are looking for a facility they can use during those days.

Sophomores Mervin and Izzy host a presentation on sea-level rise and its impact on the Lower 9th Ward at the Global Green Center in August. (newharmonyhigh.org)

New Harmony has the distinction of being the only XQ Super School in Louisiana and one of 19 nationwide, according to information on the XQ Institute website. This is a distinction that came with $10 million in startup money.

Funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s co-founder, the XQ Super School project seeks to re-imagine the American high school by selecting and supporting innovative models.

New Harmony was one of 10 schools, out of 700 applicants nationwide, to be chosen as an XQ Super School in 2016, The New Orleans Advocate reported in 2017.

The school practices what Burrell calls “big picture learning” that builds knowledge through hands-on projects. After the first term, which is primarily spent in the classroom (although the classroom could move outside), ninth-grade students spend their Thursdays on a project, such inventorying catch basins, or on a field trip, such as visiting the Mississippi and studying a Langston Hughes poem on rivers.

The 10th-graders spend Thursdays doing internships with local businesses. “Our students have grown up online,” said Burrell, who coordinates the internships. “We make sure they get face-to-face interaction, that they learn to be reliable and communicate well.”

Burrell said the school is interested in partnering with community organizations in the Bayou St. John and Mid-City area. “We’d like to further connect our kids with the community they are in,” he said.

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