New Orleans

In a city still struggling with segregation, a popular charter school fights to remain diverse

Bricolage Academy hopes new admissions system that sets aside seats for poor kids will keep classrooms integrated

NEW ORLEANS — The central tenet of nearly any successful recruitment strategy is to emphasize the positives and downplay problems, but Josh Densen was engaging in a different kind of hard sell at a school tour back in early November.

“I’m not recruiting right now,” proclaimed Densen — founder of Bricolage Academy, a charter school that currently serves kindergarten through third grade, but will eventually be a K-12 school. “I believe Bricolage is a school for all kids, but not all adults.”

“When a child pushes another kid in line, we’ll talk about how one person’s actions affected the other person, we’ll think about how to repair the relationships and then we are moving on. There are no merits or demerits,” said Densen. “If that sounds good to you, check yourself because I often joke that it seems as though parents want that approach for their own kids, but no excuses for other kids.”

As Densen ran down a list of the reasons parents might not want to send their kids to Bricolage, moms and dads began to squirm in the cafeteria chairs their children might one day sit in. He told parents that if they wanted to be a part of Bricolage, they should realize that they were signing up for a higher calling, not just a good school.

“I believe if you don’t tackle head on how racism manifests itself in a diverse community that you run the risk of recreating and reinforcing the very same power structures and imbalances that we were established to try to upend,” Densen, who grew up in an affluent suburb in New Jersey, told the room of parents.

Bricolage has been anointed as one of the good schools by middle class and affluent parents, who have long complained about the lack of options in the public school system for their children. The school is too new to have test results, but droves of parents, most of them white, have arrived at Bricolage’s doorstep attracted by relatively small classrooms — all classrooms had 20 or fewer students during the 2014-15 school year — and a curriculum that focuses on fostering creativity and autonomy. While prospective parents praise both halves of the school’s mission of creating innovators and advancing equity, parents on the school tour focused on the innovation aspect: “How is math taught?” and “Does Bricolage follow Reggio or Montessori?” they asked.

Popularity is making Densen’s mission harder. Bricolage is part of a new wave of charter schools looking to bake economic and racial diversity into their very DNA.

Gwendolyn Steele, 70, and her daughter, Sheitan Steele, 47, were among the smattering of non-white faces in the cafeteria that day. The older Steele has been raising her great-grandnephew, Landon, since she took the boy – who she often refers to as “my son” – home from the hospital on the day he was born. She has been serious about his education ever since. Two years ago, she landed a coveted spot for him at Educare, part of a highly regarded national network of early childhood centers that serve low-income children from birth to 5.

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If they win a spot for Landon at Bricolage in this year’s charter lottery, the boy will go from a school that serves poor black families almost exclusively to one in which black children make up just 37 percent of the student body and in which only 41 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged by the state. Citywide, black students make up 82 percent of public school enrollment, while low-income children also comprise 82 percent of students.

Densen’s ambitious plan to build an integrated school is not what Gwendolyn Steele finds exciting about Bricolage. While other parents in the cafeteria smiled and nodded during Densen’s presentation the Steeles had their poker faces on. That changed when Densen started showing off the classrooms.

Their faces lit up when they saw the innovation classroom, where students from kindergarten on work with materials like plastic bottles, cardboard and even coin batteries and LED lights to design and build objects.

“He would love that, experimenting with things,” Gwendolyn Steele said, beaming. “He has so much energy and is so curious.”

She also sees Landon, who is currently receiving speech therapy services, flourishing in the other classrooms, where students often learn by working together and talking to each other, instead of through direct instruction from their teachers. She thinks all of that rug time with his classmates would make Landon a better and more confident speaker.

But Allyne Henderson Barner, another one of the handful of black parents on the tour, wasn’t as sold on the school’s academic approach. After sending her daughter to Abeona House — a prekindergarten program that embraces a similar progressive teaching style — she wondered: “At what point are they going to get structure?”

“That lack of structure gives me a little bit of pause,” she concluded.

That apprehension brings up a tension in the movement for diverse charters: while their students may be diverse, the people who design these schools usually are not. By and large the founders are white educators, like Densen, who embrace progressive pedagogy.

Halley Potter, who studies potential policy solutions for addressing educational inequality, is a fellow at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank based in New York, and a member of the governing board of the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools. She acknowledges that the coalition is dominated by schools like Bricolage, schools that embrace progressive teaching approaches that tend to rely much more on projects and much less on testing than traditional schools. But she doesn’t think that hinders their ability to attract parents from differing backgrounds.

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Potter points to the Blackstone Valley Prep schools in Rhode Island as an example of a program that has managed to create integrated schools while also embracing more structure than progressive schools like Bricolage, including uniforms, a longer school day and a strict discipline code.

“They have the children of doctors, who would have had to look for afterschool care, who appreciate the longer days,” said Potter. “So I think what we are seeing around the country is these schools are breaking the assumption that all families of the same demographic want the same thing. So if you are assuming, for example, that low-income families and families of color are not interested in progressive pedagogy, these schools are breaking a lot of those stereotypes.”

Densen is convinced that there’s widespread demand for a school like Bricolage across the racial and socioeconomic fault lines of New Orleans. While designing his school, he held community meetings in predominately middle-class, black communities in New Orleans East, in poor black sections of town like Central City, in diverse communities like Mid-City and in more affluent white neighborhoods Uptown. But, he recognizes, he can’t just build a school and expect a cross section of New Orleans to come; that’s why he has spent a lot of his time recruiting since launching Bricolage.

Bricolage, which originally leased space at Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue in the heart of Uptown New Orleans, secured good word of mouth in many white and middle class circles early on, with many of those parents following the school to another temporary location on Esplanade Avenue in Bayou St. John. Eventually the school will move down Esplanade Avenue to the old John McDonogh High School campus in Treme. In the school’s first year, white children made up roughly 45 percent of the student body. As Bricolage parents began to rave about their experiences, the school grew even whiter — white students now make up 55 percent of the student body. Hoping to maintain a diverse school, Densen now exclusively focuses on selling Bricolage in the city’s poor and black neighborhoods.

Even so, families like the Steeles are not guaranteed a seat. Last year there were over four times more applicants than there were available spots. This year marks a turning point in how the school admits students. The state is now allowing them to use a weighted lottery. Up to a third of seats will be set aside for families who qualify for anti-poverty programs like food stamps or Medicaid. If Landon’s application does not receive special socioeconomic weighting, his odds of landing a spot at the school are stark.

Densen says some early Bricolage parents thought they were signing up for a charter school that would be just like a private school, but more diverse. He blames himself, in part, for feeding into that belief. That’s why he now stresses the school’s equity mission so much during tours and information sessions.

Densen admits Bricolage is still a work in progress. Many of the parents at the November school tour were looking at the same mix of private and public schools that have long attracted middle-class New Orleanians, including schools like Lusher, Audubon, Hynes, Ecole Bilingue and Holy Name. All are schools that are far whiter and more affluent than the majority of New Orleans schools.

The Steeles’ presence suggests that Densen’s recruiting strategy has been working. They heard about Bricolage at Educare, where Densen has met with staff and parents. The Steeles’ list of prospective schools looked very different from other parents’. It included high-poverty, overwhelmingly black schools like Langston Hughes, Nelson and Bethune along with another intentionally diverse school, Morris Jeff.

Gwendolyn Steele is ambivalent about whether Landon attends an all-black school or an integrated school. “I’m just trying to get him in the best school for him,” she said.

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Maggie Runyan-Shefa is co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to people looking to launch or expand high-performing charter schools. She says that while there’s clearly demand for intentionally diverse schools, they also raise questions.

“The demand for Bricolage and Morris Jeff is undeniable. I do think that there is room for these to expand, but we have to ask some deep questions before saying that this is a policy that the [Orleans Parish School Board] should pursue,” said Runyan-Shefa, whose organization provided support to Bricolage. “Where is the demand coming from? How invested are black and brown parents in this? How can we make sure with diversity comes equity and a sense of ownership?”

Runyan-Shefa thinks a better integration strategy would include looking at how to bring some racial and socioeconomic diversity to the dozens of virtually all-black schools that most New Orleanians attend.

These new schools have, as of yet, barely made a dent in the city’s legacy of school segregation. Just nine schools enroll 85 percent of white students in New Orleans public schools.

Densen sees evidence that his recruiting efforts are paying off.

“I don’t have hard data but anecdotally more and more people of all different backgrounds are aware of the school and are talking about it positively,” he said as the main application deadline for all city schools approached.

Likewise, Gwendolyn Steele said she had been asking around and had been hearing good things about the school, but she was still unsure about the details of the new socioeconomic weighting, or whether the family would even qualify for the program.

In the end, Bricolage was still her first choice.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Race and Equity.

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Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World.… See Archive