Arts Education

Marching in Mardi Gras, a New Orleans school that once struggled shows off

The alumni of a school demolished after Hurricane Katrina rallied to keep it alive after it was taken over by charter operators. A decade later, the school’s marching band is one sign of how far it’s come

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Pamela Prout Foxworth-Carter, queen of the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale, and a Carver alumna.

Pamela Prout Foxworth-Carter, queen of the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale, and a Carver alumna.

NEW ORLEANS — As soon as Pamela Prout Foxworth-Carter was named queen of the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale, she was clear on one detail: her grand, beaded queen’s mantle for the krewe’s Carnival parade would be highlighted with two colors: orange and green.

She’d been imprinted with those colors 43 years ago, in 1976, when she graduated from George Washington Carver High School in the city’s Ninth Ward, known throughout New Orleans for its orange and green uniforms and its Carver Ram mascot.

For years, she had seen her alma mater’s band sandwiched in the middle of long Carnival parades. She felt they deserved a position of prominence. “Finally, I can get it for them,” she said.

Assistant band director Patrick Williams shows a drum major's marching uniform. George Washington Carver School band in New Orleans gets ready for Mardi Gras in February 2019.

Assistant band director Patrick Williams shows a drum major’s marching uniform.

So, to lead her float, Foxworth-Carter chose the Carver marching band dressed in orange and green, with the rams emblazoned on their chests.

Foxworth-Carter’s ties to Carver reflect a strong high-school alumni tradition in New Orleans that was basically put on hiatus for nearly a decade as the city went through high-profile school reforms.

While alumni at a few, select public high schools had no break in their traditions, most New Orleans high-school grads saw drastic changes in their alma maters, as — over time — all of the public high schools that reopened became charters, with most run by new operators. Some schools moved into new buildings emblazoned with new names. Across the city, alumni groups felt left behind, like exiles without a country.

Though a few alumni groups still resent the schools that replaced their legacy institution, others have formally collaborated with leaders at their replacement schools.

Last fall, Lake Area New Tech Early College High School in Gentilly was renamed John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area, as a way to reconnect a current student body with the Kennedy name, which was attached to a flood-damaged school that was demolished after Katrina.

And in the fall of 2016, Sci Academy in eastern New Orleans became Abramson Sci Academy, after the principal met with enthusiastic alumni from the demolished Marion Abramson High School, whose footprint the Sci Academy structure was built upon.

At Carver, an initially adversarial relationship between charter operator Collegiate Academies and school alumni has faded, as principal Jerel Bryant checks in with Carver grads through regular phone calls, monthly meetings with a small group of alumni advisors and a staff that now includes about a dozen Carver alumni. “I now have a ton of different alumni touchpoints,” he said.

Trumpeter Ashlee Brown, in the Carver band room. Brown, an A student, often hears about the band from boasting alumni. “We know the old band — that’s our vibe,” she’ll tell them. “But we’re remaking it.” George Washington Carver School band in New Orleans gets ready for Mardi Gras in February 2019.

Trumpeter Ashlee Brown, in the Carver band room. Brown, an A student, often hears about the band from boasting alumni. “We know the old band — that’s our vibe,” she’ll tell them. “But we’re remaking it.”

The reknitting of schools and histories gives a new depth to this year’s Carnival parades, as students from schools like Carver see proud alumni like Foxworth-Carter and feel a deeper connection to their schools’ rich histories.

“Sometimes as I walk the halls, I get a feeling of our Carver roots,” said trumpeter Ashlee Brown, a senior with a 4.0 average. “The building where they studied is gone, but I can still feel them with us.”

Related: The lost children of Katrina

Carver sits in an isolated area bounded by the Interstate 10 freeway, railroad tracks, and the Industrial and Florida canals. In its early days, in the mid-1950s, many of its students came from the newly opened, 100-acre Desire public-housing development and from nearby blocks, where African-American homeowners, many of them veterans, purchased homes in a Jim Crow-era New Orleans.

Today, because of the way the city’s new system of charter schools operates, students from any New Orleans neighborhood can choose to attend Carver.

Still, alumni ties play a role: nearly every student interviewed for this story had someone in their family who came through Carver. “There’s my daddy, my mama, my grandmother, my grandfather, and all my aunties,” said Kendrionne Anderson, the top student in this year’s junior class, noting that there’s a name for Carver’s tight-knit community circle. “We call it not a family, but a “Ramily,” she said, in honor of the mascot.

A decade-long battle to keep ‘Carver’ alive

Without its alumni, Carver might not have a home in the Ninth Ward.

The band practices marching in an isolated section of the 9th Ward, where some houses are still shuttered from flood damage they suffered after Hurricane Katrina. George Washington Carver School band in New Orleans gets ready for Mardi Gras in February 2019.

The band practices marching in an isolated section of the 9th Ward, where some houses are still shuttered from flood damage they suffered after Hurricane Katrina.

After Hurricane Katrina, vocal alumni urged state officials to reopen the school, even though its building was too heavily damaged to repair and renovate. A few years later, in 2007, Carver opened in temporary modular buildings behind the damaged structure.

But in August 2008, the state-run Recovery School District included only one Ninth Ward high school in its first master plan for building construction. It was rumored the school might be built in the Lower Ninth Ward.

As Carver alumni drove in from other states to attend that year’s homecoming football game, they solicited petition signatures across town, demanding that the state choose Carver’s Higgins Boulevard site. Relenting to pressure, the state ultimately agreed and, in 2014, broke ground on a state-of-the-art structure on the Carver site.

Carver alumni also rose up in the spring of 2012, when the Recovery School District opted to phase out Carver as a direct-run school and bring in operator Collegiate Academies. Wearing bright-orange t-shirts, they held signs reading, “Hands Off Carver! We Deserve Respect!”

Related: Held back, but not helped

In 2012, during the protests, Bryant, the principal, was hired to head up Carver Collegiate, one of the two “academies” formed under the Carver name. At first, it seemed overwhelming: his principal training hadn’t taught him what to do when alumni protested his school. “I had been taught that my role was to build school culture from the inside-out,” he said. “But here, I learned it was important to build it both from the inside-out and the outside-in.”

Bryant realized he had homework to do. “I realized that, in order to create the school our students deserved, I needed to become a student of the legacy, the spirit, the narrative.”

The gleaming new school opened in 2016, complete with three-dimensional rams’ heads popping out of the walls at key points. Most importantly, at the ribbon-cutting in 2016, the name above the door read simply, “G.W. Carver.”

To honor what he’d heard from alumni and from Ninth Ward neighbors, Bryant had worked to merge the two academies, Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate, into one unified school. “By then, I knew what they wanted. I had learned that, in my role, I have to think not just about my students but about the community at large,” he said.

Band director Eric French, right, lifts the tip of a trombone as he watches Kirk Newman, Danielle Scott, and Kentrell Denson, from left to right, get in line. George Washington Carver School band in New Orleans gets ready for Mardi Gras in February 2019.

Band director Eric French, right, lifts the tip of a trombone as he watches Kirk Newman, Danielle Scott, and Kentrell Denson, from left to right, get in line.

That devotion to neighbors applies in the band room as well, as band director Eric French explained during a recent day at rehearsal, as he called the Mr. Magic tune, “Ninth Ward,” a regional hit from 1999.

This song, more than any other, needed to be played correctly, French said. “For every person who attended this school, this is like an anthem. So when you play this song and that community hears it, it does something inside them. This is their Star-Spangled Banner.”

The feeling that song evokes is layered, though it starts with pride about the Carver band, Bryant said. “It is the school pride,” he said. “But it’s also the deep history. And it’s the neighborhood. There’s a trifecta of pride all centered around this institution.”

Cherishing history while challenging old assumptions

On the streets of New Orleans, Bryant often hears from alumni about Carver’s marching band. “For alums who love Carver, but don’t have time to visit or volunteer, their most intimate touchpoint with the school is at Mardi Gras, seeing our band on the parade route,” he said. By the time Collegiate Academies was designing the high school’s new building, Bryant knew that, to maintain Carver’s band legacy, give his students a well-rounded music education, and satisfy those alums, he needed an acoustically strong band room. Last summer, after he hired French, he knew that he had tapped into the perfect person to connect his students to the Carver legacy.

Band director Eric French talks with drum-major coach Curly Jones after the Femme Fatale parade.

Band director Eric French talks with drum-major coach Curly Jones after the Femme Fatale parade.

Alumni got their first look at French leading the Carver band in the Saturday Pygmalion parade, on the night before Femme Fatale. But skies opened up midway into the parade and band members were wet and miserable by the time they got back to Carver at around 10 p.m. They thought their uniforms would be clammy for days. French told them to turn their uniforms inside out and carefully lay them out on the gymnasium floor.

Surprisingly, the uniforms were completely dry as they got dressed for Femme Fatale on Sunday morning.

French, 41, led his band off yellow buses, adjusting plumes and checking uniforms. A Carver alum, French has worked tirelessly since he took over the school’s band program six months ago. He arranged marching-band versions of countless new songs, taught every band member to read music, and showed them how to play more precisely. He brought in nearly a dozen Carver-band alumni to help his students hone their skills on drums and horns. He wanted everything to be right.

While French has a reputation for precision, the intensity of his work this year reflects something more, said Lawrence Rawlins, the band director for McDonogh 35, who stood not far away, watching his own students disembark from a bus. “It’s different this year. Because Carver is his home. It’s special to go home,” Rawlins said.

As Brown, the trumpeter, walked from their bus to a schoolyard that serves as a pre-parade staging area for marching bands, a woman in the parade crowd yelled, “Looking good, Carver! That’s my school!”

Brown grinned. She’s heard about the band’s proud past from boasting alumni, she said, but she believes that their hard work with French this year marks more than just a return to a marching band of yore. “We know the old band — that’s our vibe,” she’ll tell them. “But we’re remaking it.”

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

Senior drum major Cyncere Joseph and drum-major coach Curly Jones. George Washington Carver School band in New Orleans gets ready for Mardi Gras in February 2019.

Senior drum major Cyncere Joseph and drum-major coach Curly Jones.

Head drum major Cyncere Joseph, a senior with a 4.0 grade point average, led Brown and the rest of the band to an empty spot in the yard. Across the yard, band directors hugged each other and joked, as their students took turns warming up.

But Joseph was interested in marching-band style. As she looked around, she saw bands wearing maroon and gold, purple and gold, blue and gold, and red and black. Compared to Carver’s, these color schemes seem so tame, Joseph said. “Our colors don’t even really go together — who do you know that took orange and green and made it work? Only Carver.”

Meanwhile, standing high in the air, atop her queen’s float, members of the parade’s royal court helped place Foxworth-Carter’s crown perfectly on her head. The queen was ready.

“Now where’s Carver?” Foxworth-Carter said, gazing toward the schoolyard.

Foxworth-Carter sat on her float’s throne and recalled when she first asked for Carver to lead her float. To others in her krewe, accustomed to seeing the same top-school bands lead the parade, Carver seemed like a surprising choice.

The George Washington Carver marching band in the Femme Fatale parade in February 2019.

The George Washington Carver marching band in the Femme Fatale parade in February 2019.

“Carver is sometimes overlooked because of its location and its community,” Foxworth-Carter said. “But I’m a product of Carver. I’m proud of me. So I know what can come out of Carver.”

As the band prepared to take its position ahead of Foxworth-Carter’s float, drum major Tyson Brown tightened the strap for Joseph’s hat, making sure it would stay on in that day’s wind.

The band filed out of the yard and onto the street in formation, flanked by a half-dozen alumni volunteers, dressed in matching green track suits with bright orange tennis shoes. Tyson Brown took his place next to Cyncere Joseph at the front and rested his staff on the ground, waiting for the full band to line up.

He was destined for Carver, he said. His mother gave birth to him 17 years ago while she was still a Carver student, at a time when the school had an on-site nursery. During homecoming week, little Tyson was named “Little Mr. Carver.” It all came full circle last fall, during homecoming week, as he was named “Mr. Carver” — homecoming king.

Drum majors Cyncere Joseph and Tyson Brown, both A students, lead the Carver band in the Femme Fatale parade.

Drum majors Cyncere Joseph and Tyson Brown, both A students, lead the Carver band in the Femme Fatale parade.

Besides acting as drum major, or playing football or pitching on the baseball team, Brown plays trombone in the Carver band, where he’s seen a tremendous shift. “We don’t have any more ‘horn holders’ in the band — people who only played their instruments part of the time. Everybody is playing.”

Still, Carver sometimes gets pegged “as one of them schools,” he said. Some people see them as a place where students were failing before Katrina, where students are more likely to be wild than disciplined, and where academics aren’t as valued as sports.

But that’s not what he hears from alumni, he said. “Because they always believe that we can achieve, no matter what anyone else says.”

And it’s not what he knows as a student. Though Carver’s overall school-performance score has only risen to a C, Brown, an A student, has watched its steady ascent since he began at Carver as a freshman. This year, the school was one of the highest scorers in the city on a new “growth” measure, which tracks the academic progress of each individual student over one year’s time. Last week, students heard that 98 percent of seniors had been accepted at a college, the highest rate the school has ever seen — and it’s only February.

And then there’s the band, which he sees as a reflection of the school’s other gains.

Word is already out among alumni, Brown said. “They know we’re coming.”

Next to him, Joseph nodded. They’d all heard that their parents and alumni were waiting to see them along the parade route this year. They hoped others, especially those with long-held opinions about Carver, would change their minds once the orange and green uniforms moved toward them with their bigger, more exacting sound.

“I want them to forget who we really are, so that we can surprise them,” Brown said. “I can’t wait.”

This story about George Washington Carver High School was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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