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New Orleans public school seniors celebrate acceptances to college By Danielle Dreilinger, The Times-Picayune

The 55 seniors wore high school uniforms, college sweatshirts or dress shirts, and they squinted into a future so bright they’ve gotta wear shades. Or maybe it was just the late-spring sun falling on Gallier Hall’s steps Thursday, as officials celebrated the college acceptances of New Orleans public school students.

Some 2,500 members of the Class of 2014 have received thick envelopes from more than 345 colleges and earned $53 million in merit scholarships so far, according to the city’s two systems, the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board. One by one, a representative group of these students on the Gallier Hall steps took the microphone and announced his or her name, high school and intended college. There was Cindy Ly, Sarah T. Reed, Xavier; David Jones, Clark, Texas Southern; Joseph Parker, Landry-Walker, Morehouse; Jeffery Miller, Ben Franklin and NOCCA, Juilliard.

“The city of New Orleans had always been a place where hope was just outside of our grasp,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu (Jesuit, Catholic University of America, Loyola). “I can’t think of a better picture that symbolizes that that hope has become a reality.”

Before Hurricane Katrina, graduation rates and future educational prospects of New Orleans public school students were wildly uneven. If a student didn’t go to one of the city’s six selective-admission high schools, there was little chance of crossing the dormitory threshold.

Nine years ago, 98 percent of the seniors at those six schools graduated, according to analysis by Educate Now. More than half qualified for TOPS, allowing them free access to Louisiana public colleges. But at the other 13 high schools, only 75 percent of seniors graduated – and five percent earned TOPS. That doesn’t account for the many students who left before senior year.

This month, 95 percent of the city’s public school seniors are set to graduate — from a very changed landscape. The city’s future “is through the schoolhouse door,” Landrieu said. “You busted through it.”

Renee Smith goes to a school, Sci Academy, that didn’t exist before Katrina. Gregory Estes is in the final class to graduate from Reed, which before Katrina was the city’s best open-enrollment school – and it was still failing.

Thursday’s celebration took place one day after Tulane University’s Cowen Institute released a report stating that even though poverty has increased 9 percent among New Orleans’ public school students since 2004, the schools’ performance scores have gone up 41 percent.

“This is what we’ve worked so hard for as educators … a realization of what we dared to dream,” said Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard (St. Augustine, Southern University at New Orleans, Southern-Baton Rouge). He urged them not to stop at undergrad. “We want you to go further! Get your master’s, get your Ph.D.”

Two seniors reflected on their high school careers and what comes next.

Renee Smith, Sci Academy, Louisiana State University

Renee Smith attended elementary and middle school “all over the place,” she said: George Cox in Gretna, Fannie C. Williams in eastern New Orleans, Alice Harte in Algiers, McDonogh 35 in the 7th Ward, Slidell Junior High. And she experienced enough trouble to give her a personal interest in how the brain responds to trauma, a subject she intends to study at LSU.

But for high school, Smith followed her older sister to Sci Academy and stayed for all four years. She joined so many activities that she had trouble remembering them all to list on her college applications. “I’m in everything,” she said – volleyball, basketball, a social justice group, student government. “The different opportunities that kids have from Sci Academy – it’s outrageous.”

Smith’s life abounds in family support, not to say positive pressure. All her blood relations expected her to succeed, she said: “If you weren’t going to college and you weren’t doing nothing with your life, you were going to hear about it.” Her all-girls advisory group at Sci is “like your other family there.” And her teachers are involved as well: “Most of the teachers will be all on you and that’s how they show you their love and concern,” she said.

Smith isn’t nervous about the fall. She’ll know people at LSU, and she’s ready to get out on her own. “I’m feeling very happy, comfortable and ready,” she said.

Gregory Estes, Sarah T. Reed, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts – Austin

Gregory Estes had the hardest time deciding where to go to college. He knew he wanted to study culinary arts; he’s worked in kitchens for three years, in Algiers where he lives. He chose the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His mother even moved there, he said, in anticipation of the fall.

Then Estes saw a commercial for Le Cordon Bleu. Getting accepted to the two-year program “took me two months of interviews. I met with the president of the college, and it was, like, intense,” he said. When the president called back, offering him a partial scholarship, “I was in the middle of talking to the man at ULL.”

In the end, he changed his mind. (His mother wasn’t entirely happy.) He got so excited about Le Cordon Bleu that he filled out his financial aid paperwork the day it arrived. He took forms to Lafayette and back for his mother’s signature. Nor was that the end of the paperwork: “I just got through my last form yesterday,” he said.

At Le Cordon Bleu, he’ll seek an associate’s degree. Then he plans to transfer to the University of Texas to study business. Then it’s back to New Orleans to see about opening a restaurant.

Estes advised rising high school freshmen not to waste time. In the middle of his freshman year, he was failing. When he got to sophomore year, he realized those grades were on his transcript for good and he’d have to work extra hard to catch up. “You can never travel back in time,” he said. “For every minute you waste, that’s a minute you’re never going to get back of your life.”

He’s more than caught up now, and confident. “In elementary I never thought I would get this far and with passion and motivation, I succeeded,” he said.

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