Every morning, Karla Johnson has a special way of starting the day at Capitol Elementary. She calls it “harambee,” from the Swahili for “all pull together.”
The spirit of harambee pervades everything Johnson is trying to do as principal of this small public school in the historic, impoverished Eden Park neighborhood of Baton Rouge.
Her work has caught the attention of a local teachers union as well as the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. They hope to marry what she’s doing with larger concepts about how to energize not just a school but an entire community. They see such community schools as a potential alternative to charter schools, which have been luring away Capitol students, as well as a way to meet increasing state and federal public school accountability standards.
On the morning of Dec. 18, the last day before winter break, uplifting music fills the school auditorium as students file in. Many of them are clad in Christmas pajamas, some donated for those who couldn’t afford their own. The school, which was built in 2008, has capacity for about 660 students but currently enrolls only 370. On this day, with some kids cutting out early for the holidays, attendance is lighter than normal.
When almost everyone has arrived, Johnson takes the stage dressed in her own red flannel PJs. She’s totes her tall “spirit” stick, decked out in blue and gold. The school’s mascot and colors are the same as the Southern University Jaguars.
“Good morning,” Johnson shouts, punctuating her word by by pounding her stick on the floor.
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The kids respond immediately in chant: “G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G, Good Morning, Hey Hey. Good Morning!”
A cross between a drill sergeant and the drum major of a marching band, Johnson leads the students through the rapid-fire harambee agenda that’s printed in big letters on the auditorium walls: pledge of allegiance, vision statement, jaguar pledge, recognition, announcements and moment of silence.
Harambee is not unique to Capitol. Johnson said she saw a harambee years ago at a Freedom Schools summer camp and developed her own version.
Gretchen Lampe, UniServ director with the Louisiana Association of Educators, had heard that interesting things were happening at Capitol Elementary, so in September she sat in on a morning harambee. Lampe was immediately taken with the experience.
“It was so cool,” Lampe recalled.
LAE and Lampe had been looking for a beachhead in Louisiana for something the union has been popularizing in a several other states: community schools. It’s part of larger effort by the union and traditional public education supporters to develop an alternative to charter schools.
A key aspect of the concept is an old idea: The school should be the hub of the community, a place where both children and adults can get help to address a range of issues and thereby make it easier for education to occur. Sometimes, these are referred to as “wraparound services.”
It’s something Capitol Elementary had already been struggling on its own to build.
“Teachers have to break through a lot of scar tissue before even reaching the child,” said Johnalynn Jackson, a counselor at the school.
Jackson said many of the kids come to school weighed down and upset by their parents' issues: “They left mom (as she was) being abused. They left mom at 2 or 3 in the morning because they were taken out of the home. They have no electricity, they have no water, they have no job or they may have to move.”
With all that going on, it’s hard to get children to focus on what the teacher wants them to do, she said.
“They’re here physically,” Jackson said. “Their body is here, but mentally they’re not here.”
Jackson spends a lot of time helping parents to help their children. She cold calls churches and businesses, nearby and in other parts of town, for their time and money in a wide variety of school endeavors and has had some success.
But it’s not enough. She longs to start an adult education program to help parents find job and housing assistance so families would be less prone to bounce from school to school.
“When children see that their families are okay, they do a lot better in the classroom,” she said.
Becoming a “community school” could help.
Soon after Lampe’s visit, LAE flew Principal Johnson and other staff to Milwaukee, where the union and other partners have a “community school institute” to explain how these schools work and what they can mean for a distressed community.
The union also helped organized a well-attended Dec. 12 parent meeting. The speaker was Kyle Serrette, a senior policy analyst with Lampe's national organization, the National Education Association, which is based in Washington, D.C.
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Beyond attention, becoming a community school could mean money. The parish school system plans to incorporate community school ideas for Capitol Elementary into its upcoming application to the state for school improvement money via the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
“We’re trying to see how can we meet the needs of our students while also tending to meet the needs of our parents,” said Quentina Timoll, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the school system.
Timoll said the application is due by Feb. 1. Last year, the school system landed $2.2 million as part of the ESSA grant process.
Capitol Elementary has a D letter grade from the state, meaning it requires comprehensive intervention to improve its academic performance. The school system placed Capitol in a new 13-school Innovation Network that’s getting a lot of turnaround assistance.
A bright spot for Capitol is that many students are growing academically. Indeed, if growth had been the sole measure, the school would have an A letter grade. Still, most Capitol students remain well behind their peers across the state and short of state academic standards.
In addition, a bid for federal housing money to establish a Choice Neighborhood for the nearby Melrose area could allow the school system to expand the community school concept to nearby Melrose Elementary and Capitol Middle schools.
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Meanwhile at the harambee, Johnson moves on to recognitions, a popular part of the program.
“I have a recognition!” Johnson shouts
“Recognize,” the students respond.
“I said, I have a recognition.”
“Recognized,” the students shout back, louder.
Johnson thanks students who performed the night before in the school Christmas play, which prompts the children to shout: “Good Job!”
After a handful of other acknowledgements, one boy is not going to be left out: “Today is my birthday!” The audience breaks into a chanted version of the “Happy birthday” song.
Teacher Sandra Williams then raises her hand. Johnson notices: “Ms. Williams has a birthday, too. She’s a December baby. One, two …” and everyone chants happy birthday to her as a well.
Johnson leads a harambee every day, even when she’s not feeling up to it. She once opted not to do harambee and she heard about it — from her upset teachers.
“I realized that teachers can have a bad morning too and they need to release,” Johnson said. “I knew that moment I could never cancel again.”