Life is all about football for Earnest Pate, 17, a rising senior at KIPP Renaissance High School and a football lineman who stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 330 pounds.
But before Pate could even put on a practice jersey and join his team on the practice field, he needed to get his grades up, from a D to a C.
Pate’s school long put grades before football.
Then last year, KIPP Renaissance earned an A rating, the first of any school opened by the Recovery School District. To Principal Joey LaRoche, that meant that his school was ready for a first-class football team.
“In our early years, the focus was on academics. But we now have the capacity to do this,” he said, as he sat in his truck looking out at the school's practice field, which is edged by massive live oak trees and marked by a stone World War I victory arch on Burgundy Street.
This spring, LaRoche hired seasoned coach Corey McCloud, a former assistant at McDonogh 35, who brought other seasoned coaches onto the practice field behind Renaissance, which is in the Bywater building that used to house Frederick Douglass High School and, before that, Francis T. Nicholls High School.
Renaissance had tried to field a football team in the past, but practices were often sparsely attended, and the coaches were relatively green. “Now, there’s just a lot more coaching experience on the field, a lot more knowledge of the game. That gives football a difference kind of presence in the building,” said Yusuf Young, the school’s athletic director.
Even now, in the off-season, McCloud and his assistants spend every weeknight and Saturday morning putting about 40 players through offensive and defensive drills and getting them into shape, physically and mentally.
McCloud gets a weekly report on all of his players’ grades and accepts no D's or F's.
Even those who have higher grades will get pulled aside if McCloud sees their grades slipping, said cornerback Maurice Dawson, 17, who has a 2.6 GPA. “He said that my grades are acceptable, but he expects higher,” said Dawson, who — like the other seniors — has already met a series of college coaches who stopped by the school to see McCloud.
That stronger link to colleges is a special plus for Dawson, Pate and two other rising seniors who are catching college coaches’ attention — Gary Martin, 17, a talented slot receiver with a 3.2 GPA, and Cedric Williams Jr., 16, a tall, lanky wide receiver with both speed and good hands and a 2.8 GPA.
“Everything is more organized this year,” Williams said. “It keeps me more focused. Keeps me at practice,” he added, as he stood in a makeshift weight room that matches the school’s makeshift locker room.
Earlier this month, the school found the money to create a state-of-the-art weight room. Upgrading the locker room is next on the team’s want list, along with transportation to summer tournaments on college campuses and other miscellaneous team expenses that McCloud hopes to finance through old-school means like team car washes and hot-dog sales.
This season, the KIPP Renaissance Bobcats, a 3A nonselect-division team from a school with a student body of roughly 400, will compete in a new league against similarly sized public schools like Sci Academy, Sophie B. Wright, Cohen College Prep and Thomas Jefferson High School.
Last year, the team had a record of 2-8, setting Williams up for some ribbing from his friends. “They say, ‘You’re playing for the Bobcats? Y’all still sad?’ ” he said.
Dawson heard it, too. “People used to say that our team was kind of garbage,” he said. “But I knew the talent we had.”
Now, both players are convinced the Bobcats can have a winning season.
McCloud also seemed convinced Saturday as he watched his new team run through daily drills.
“They’re fighters,” he said, a conclusion reinforced each time he pushes them extra hard. “They keep fighting. I love that about them.”
As soon as he got the job, McCloud asked a friend to find a surplus semi-tractor tire and drop it at the practice field behind the school. Now, if McCloud gets any negative feedback about a player from a teacher, that player must flip the tire up one side of the field and back again.
It must work, McCloud said. “Because now parents are calling me, saying, “Coach, put him on the tire. He didn’t do the dishes.”
The newly formed Bywater Bobcat Booster Club also marks the beginning of a neighborhood strategy. McCloud has found an apartment in Bywater and plans to move in soon so that he can be part of the community where he coaches. Soon, he hopes to make his players an indispensable part of the neighborhood, raking yards and painting houses for elderly residents.
As LaRoche, the principal, sat watching, players were grouped by position, running drills. Some were pushing the five-man tackling sled; others were going out for passes. A third group was running through an obstacle course.
As an educator, LaRoche was pleased. “It’s impressive to see,” he said. “There’s small-group teaching, a lot of feedback. It’s a really great classroom.”
LaRoche graduated from Eleanor McMain Secondary School before Hurricane Katrina, when it was a high-performing school that offered not only strong academics but a broad high school experience with theater, music, sports and other extracurricular programs.
After Katrina, he saw an array of college-prep-style high schools open in New Orleans. But many lacked other activities essential to creating well-rounded students, he said.
LaRoche is determined the students he sends to college will receive the kind of well-balanced education he took for granted at McMain.
“Even students who don’t play football or march in the band want to go to a school that has football and band,” he said. “Because students want those memories. They want to be part of a great high school experience.”