Under blue skies Monday morning near the school’s front entrance, Istrouma High School Principal Linda Lewis thanked a crowd of prominent business and community leaders who have adopted her school in a big way.
Lewis noted the old proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.
“Today, the village took responsibility,” Lewis said.
The “village” is more than 50 different business, community and government organizations. Eight of them are serving as lead partners, including ExxonMobil, which adopted Istrouma High years ago.
Entergy, however, is the main driver of the effort that began about a year ago and is being called the Istrouma School Zone Initiative.
“We’re involved with a lot of efforts with a lot of different organizations, but we didn’t feel like we were really making a difference,” said Bill Mohl, Entergy’s president and chief executive officer.
While talking about ways to have a bigger impact, the partners looked to, among other places, the work of Geoffrey Canada and his largely privately funded comprehensive anti-poverty effort known as the Harlem Children’s Zone.
The effort, which is trying to remake several blocks in Harlem, got the attention of President Barack Obama, who wants to create 20 similar zones, called Promise Neighborhoods, across the nation.
Unlike the Harlem Children’s Zone, which focuses heavily on young children in an effort to create a “cradle-to-college pipeline,” the Istrouma School Zone is going the other way. It’s starting with high school students and using that work to provide benefits to people living throughout the school’s north Baton Rouge attendance zone.
“We felt like you can’t throw any students away. We need to help them now,” said Morgan Stewart, Entergy’s manager of external affairs.
Exactly what help this new village will provide is unclear.
A short document describing the Istrouma School Zone Initiative said three committees are at work devising action plans in a range of areas of “critical need” — lack of mentors, high dropout rates, lack of job skills, health problems, homelessness, lack of good affordable housing, inability to pay bills, child care, lack of transportation, parenting issues and “other social service needs.”
The LSU School of Social Work also is playing a key role.
Pam Monroe, a social work professor and project leader, said she will work to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
“I like to describe my role as ‘community organizing,’ making sure the collective voice of the students, parents and school personnel is represented,” she said.
Monroe will also help to document evidence of the initiative’s success.
Mohl said it may take five years to accumulate evidence.
There’s a lot of work to do, which Mohl is aware of. He noted the recent shooting death of two Istrouma High students — both occurred off campus and not during school hours.
“The students here face challenges that none of us ever dreamed of,” Mohl said.
During the ceremony celebrating the initiative, Superintendent John Dilworth warned that when new school report cards come out soon that Istrouma High will receive an F, as part of the state’s shift from hotel-like star ratings to using letter grades for labels.
“You don’t let a ZIP code or a letter grade on a school report card define you,” he said.
Stewart, with Entergy, said Dilworth helped select Istrouma, in part because of the willingness of Lewis to work with outside groups.
Entergy is using Istrouma as a pilot project and also is working with officials in Jefferson Parish to locate another high-needs school, Stewart said.
Tori Frost, an Istrouma senior, said she and her classmates have dreams that will be a struggle to achieve.
“We are so proud that people are coming together to focus so much on our school,” she said.
One person with a very doable dream is Anthony Storks. He’s with Go Green Club and has been busy helping to develop a small community garden at the school that grows vegetables for residents in the surrounding community.
The garden was highlighted by the Istrouma School Zone organizers Monday as the kind of thing they plan to do a lot more.
Storks, who has a landscaping job and wants to make that his career, said the garden will help him give back to his community. It’s a community he knows well, pointing at his house just a block or so away from campus.
Storks, a senior, said the new garden will get even better when it starts planting his favorite vegetable.
“I’m a potatoes man,” he said, smiling.