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A third-floor studio apartment in the struggling New Orleans neighborhood of Central City morphed into a vibrant, colorful classroom for more than a dozen 4- to 6-year-olds this summer.
Sitting at a kindergartner-sized table on Tuesday with two 5-year-old girls, English teacher Elise Butler-Pinkham asks them to sound out “th” by putting their tongue between their teeth.
“My mom says I can’t do that!” one exclaims. “It will push my teeth out!”
Standing behind the table, veteran educator Vera Triplett cracks a smile when she overhears the remark.
Long seen by educators as major stumbling block to U.S. educational equity, summer is the season when fewer kids engage in learning activities and even the youngest students experience educational losses, especially those at the lowest income levels.
Triplett founded the exploratory-learning program in New Orleans, where 39 percent of children live in poverty, with a focus on small-group learning and therapeutic play that’s hosted 15 youngsters this summer. Called Noble Minds, she’s also seeking a charter and hopes to open a school in the fall of 2016.
The kids spend some of their days in the classroom rotating among English, math, writing, a computer station and an area designed to provide emotional and social therapy. All the stations are squeezed into the brightly decorated apartment on the third floor of the redeveloped Ashé Cultural Arts Center on O. C. Haley Boulevard in Central City.
Other days, the crew takes field trips, which may find them traipsing through the French Quarter with the kids in matching T-shirts.
Triplett’s team includes two teachers, a retired teacher volunteer, and a handful of interns from nearby Xavier University who are working toward their master’s degree in counseling.
While walking the group to a nearby park recently, Triplett says 5-year-old Janiyah’s mother spotted them and inquired as they passed her house.
“She’s not doing anything this summer. Can she start?” Triplett recalled the mother asking.
Triplett gave her some paperwork and Janiyah joined the group shortly thereafter. Other kids joined because their parents saw flyers, a set of twins’ mother works across the street from Ashé and one young girl’s grandmother works for the center.
The families do not pay tuition. The bulk of Noble Minds’ funding comes from New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that finances several educational startups and charter schools throughout the city. It gets its money from a variety of national organizations that support creating charter schools.
Triplett focuses on expedition learning and whole-child development, as well as traditional academics.
“The idea of expedition learning gets them off a school bus and walking through neighborhoods,” Triplett said.
Whether it’s a streetcar ride to the Audubon Zoo or catching a city bus to downtown, Triplett wants the kids to learn more about their community.
“It gives them some pride in their neighborhood, the way neighborhood schools used to,” she said.
She started the summer program with the intention of enrolling pre-kindergarteners, but a few interested parents asked that their soon-to-be first-graders be allowed to participate as well. The group is a mix of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds at varying academic levels.
“We’ve got kids who come to us with academic and social-emotional deficits,” Triplett said.
“The therapeutic part doesn’t happen once a week for an hour,” she said.
It happens every day.
In one corner of the room, Savannah Watson and Tedrick Glover, both 5, sit cross-legged, engrossed in their three instructors. Savannah has a giant smile on her face and Tedrick stares intently.
Stephanie Langston, who teaches at St. Joan of Arc School during the year, sits on a child-sized chair next to two fellow Xavier University master’s degree students. They are helping the youngsters build self-esteem by asking the kids about their qualities.
“What makes them, them,” Langston said.
They ask the kids for words that describe themselves. Savannah is already wearing two nametags, one says ‘playful,’ the other ‘happy.’ Tedrick has ‘superhero’ written on his, which he has placed smack dab in the middle of his forehead.
“You have to keep these on every day,” Vanencia Lynch tells them.
“Every day?!” Savannah asks wide-eyed.
“These are the things that make you who you are every day,” Lynch says, then clarifying that they don’t actually have to wear the stickers every day.
They ask the youngsters for more descriptive words.
“I am a doctor,” Tedrick says.
“What makes you a doctor?” they ask in unison.
“I’m helpful,” he says. Lynch scribbles ‘helpful’ on a nametag and passes it over to him.
He pats it on his stomach and then peels the ‘superhero’ sticker from his forehead and adds it to his shirt.
Over at a table designated for English, Janiyah whizzes through a book in her bright pink glasses.
The kids received vision and hearing screenings through a partnership with the Childhood and Family Learning Foundation. The screening revealed Janiyah needed glasses and her mother took her to get them right away.
Triplett, reflecting on the two-month program that started June 1, hopes to continue serving kids in an afterschool program. She said she’s negotiating such a partnership with Arise Academy, a charter school on St. Claude Avenue.
Triplett taught for four years before joining the New Beginnings Schools Foundation charter school network as Chief Operating Officer in 2008. After three years, she rose to CEO for one year before working for the Recovery School District for two years starting in 2012.
Noble Minds was one of six groups to apply for a charter from the Orleans Parish School Board. Only two were approved, and Noble Minds was not one of them.
The School Board denied Noble Minds’ application based in part on a third-party evaluation. The report stated the group’s education plan was not yet fully developed and also stated “a heavy reliance on grants and unpaid interns add up to big risks financially.”
Triplett still has two applications out for a charter, one through the state-run Recovery School District and another through the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.