Keenan Lewis knows what it’s like to exceed expectations.

As a football player at O. Perry Walker and Oregon State University, the New Orleans native was told he didn’t have the build to aspire to the NFL, Lewis said to students on Friday at Andrew Wilson Charter School in Broadmoor.

But he excelled at both football and academics at Walker, earned a college scholarship, graduated with honors and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round in 2009.

“I always set goals and worked hard,” said Lewis, who, at 6 feet and 208 pounds, is not big for the NFL. “People told me, ‘You can’t do it. You’re too small.’ I proved them wrong.”

Through mutual friends who know Lewis and his mother, the Wilson staff invited the cornerback to a LEAP pep rally to inspire students to do their best on the high-stakes tests that start March 19.

About 60 percent to 63 percent of Wilson’s fourth- and eighth-graders passed the math and English portions of LEAP last year, meaning they went on to the next grade.

About 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and about 14 percent have special needs, according to the 2013 New Orleans Parents Guide to Public Schools.

Since Principal Logan Crowe stepped in three years ago, the school’s overall performance score has improved, from 59 to 78. The goal is to see another bump up this year, said the principal, leading motivational chants in a talk-show-host voice.

“Work hard! Be nice! Be betterrrrr!” he boomed into the microphone, and the students yelled the school’s motto back at him.

Students whose scores improve will be entered into drawings to receive prizes such as gift certificates and Wii games.

“We have found that incentives are huge when you are trying to encourage kids to do their best,” said Assistant Principal Ronicka Briscoe who, along with fifth-grade teacher Rasheeda Henry, helped organize the pep rally, speech and prize program.

But incentives are “just one piece to a big puzzle,” Briscoe said. The school gives students a 90-minute literacy block and 45 minutes of reading instruction every day. Science and social studies are heavily infused with reading, writing and vocabulary.

In addition, a Saturday “Achievers’ Academy” offers tutoring for students in third through eighth grades.

Most of all, “we are relying on good teaching,” she said.

The assessments will change this year as the state moves to align with national Common Core Standards, Briscoe said. However, such tests are nothing new in Orleans Parish.

“I remember when I was growing up,” Lewis, 26, told the students, “sitting in the same position you are. I had to take the LEAP test, too.”

Tests are a fact of life, he added.

“We even have to take tests in the NFL. There are tests in almost every profession in life.”

Eighth-grader Taylor Lewis — no relation to the special guest — said the LEAP test is a challenge.

However, she is confident she’ll do well enough to graduate from Wilson and go on to Dominican, Cabrini or Warren Easton High School.

“I hope I’m going to do great,” she said.

Annette Sisco is community news editor. She can be reached at