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How a new principal transformed a once-failing school

Kenya Hill, principal of Audubon Gentilly, poses for a photo in her office with her son, Elijah, on Nov. 20, 2023.
Minh Ha
/
Verite News
Kenya Hill, principal of Audubon Gentilly, poses for a photo in her office with her son, Elijah, on Nov. 20, 2023.

This story was originally published by Verite News.

Last year, Audubon Gentilly was one of several schools that failed their state evaluations and wound up in front of the Orleans Parish School Board, asking for a chance to hold onto their charters.

The Montessori-style elementary and middle school, which opened in 2018 on Painters Street and currently serves 415 students, had struggled since its inception to find its footing amid leadership turnover and the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, however, the school got a “C” on its state report card — making it one of only two schools in the NOLA Public Schools district to jump two letter grades since 2016. The state also gave Audubon Gentilly an “A” for school progress, meaning relative student growth.

Parents, teachers and administrators at the Audubon Schools charter network attribute that progress to Kenya Hill, who took helm of the school as principal in Jan. 2022.

Steve Corbett, CEO of the Audubon Schools network, told the board last year that he saw promise in the school, hiring Hill mid-year. “It was one of the best professional decisions that I’ve ever made, and our school community is exceptionally stronger because of her,” Corbett said at the time.

As Hill puts it, the changes she made were simple. Under her leadership, the school updated curricula to meet state standards, gave teachers more professional development opportunities and more autonomy and flexibility in the classroom, and came up with a support system to assist struggling students. As principal, Hill has also focused on building a strong school culture and making sure students are learning in the classroom, she said.

“It’s not that we did anything radically different,” Hill said. “We narrowed our focus, and realize[d] that if we’re going to grow students, we needed to really be laser-focused about the things that we deemed as important.”

Emma Tucker is the co-chair of the parent-teacher committee at Audubon Gentilly. Her two children have attended the school since Jan. 2020. Tucker said parents are thankful for Hill’s leadership, pointing to Hill’s “open-door policy” and willingness to listen to parents.

“Seeing her leadership come in and how she’s hit the ground running… I think that helps the teachers have the support in order to be able to teach,” Tucker said.

The Uptown campuses in the Audubon Schools network have long been among the city’s most sought-after placements. For Hill, part of the challenge of leading Audubon Gentilly is to craft a new identity for the school.

“It’s been a rewarding learning curve because Steve [Corbett] was very clear that he wanted to create an opportunity for me to really own the transformation of Audubon Gentilly,” Hill said. “People knew Audubon by name and the prestige attached to it, but Gentilly was the baby of the organization. And I appreciated that autonomy.”

Hill, who previously worked at places including March of Dimes and Staples, according to her LinkedIn profile, said she became a teacher as a way to grieve her mom, a lifelong educator who passed away from pancreatic cancer. She taught in Charlotte, North Carolina for three years before moving to New Orleans in 2014 to work as a teacher with KIPP. Hill then moved to Homer Plessy Community Schools in 2017, where she was the director of curriculum and instruction and later an assistant principal.

Audubon Gentilly is a slow-growth charter, meaning it began with only kindergarten instruction and has added a grade a year through 8th grade. (The school currently serves grades K-7, and will add grade 8 next year.) Having to recruit new teachers for new grades each year amid a teacher shortage made full implementation of a curriculum that met state standards difficult, Hill said.

So the first thing Hill did at the school was make changes to English, math and science curricula for all grades to ensure lesson plans met essential state requirements, building on her experience from Homer Plessy. Audubon Gentilly has also provided more professional development for teachers around the adoption of the new curriculum and adjusted intervention structures to better identify academically struggling students and find qualified teachers to assist them.

This has allowed the school to identify learning gaps and opportunities for improvement, Hill said. These changes have helped the school figure out what to focus on for different grades: phonics and phonemic awareness for grades K-2 and math and writing instruction for grades 3-6.

Hill also enrolled her own son, Elijah, at Audubon Gentilly, where he’s now in fifth grade.

Many of Audubon Gentilly’s students started school during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to academic and skill gaps during virtual learning. Hill and her staff have worked to make sure students are caught up on the basics following learning loss during the pandemic.

Annie Preziosi, a fifth-grade English and social studies teacher, said many of her students lacked foundational literacy skills after returning to in-person school. So, instead of teaching them about the French and Indian War that year, she taught them how to read and write.

“One thing I love about the school all the way from beginning to now is it’s never been test-preppy — it’s always been very whole-child centered,” Preziosi said.

Preziosi’s fourth-grade daughter, Aurelia, said that many of her friends who took her mom’s class developed a love for reading. “I love this school,” Aurelia said. “I don’t ever want to leave, and I wish this was my high school. I wish this was my college.”

This past school year, its math mastery rate tripled, and its ELA rate nearly doubled, according to the 2022-2023 LEAP 2025 Progress Results.

Last year, the school also set up a comprehensive arts program called Dreamers’ Lab that includes dance, visual arts, music and theater instruction. With a team of full-time dance, visual art and French teachers, Audubon Gentilly is one of the few district schools to prioritize the arts, Hill said.

“The goal of Dreamers’ Lab is that they’re doing art and however it manifests” to tackle issues and academic needs, Hill said, adding that education should be comprehensive, encompassing of academics and arts as well as social and emotional skills for a child. “It isn’t predicated on academic achievement, and it is an opportunity for staff and teachers to build strong relationships with students.”

The arts program resonates with Deryl Nunnery, whose two children attend the school. Nunnery said having many creative outlets has helped both her kids overcome their social anxiety.

“The whole child is the focus…not just the academic side,” Nunnery said about the school. “There are things in place for the kids to feel safe here.”

Audubon Gentilly also has a “discovery” room — a quiet space for students to get more one-on-one attention with teachers and paraprofessionals, which Nunnery said has been helpful for her daughter.

After gathering feedback from parents, the school also formed a disciplinary team — meaning disciplinary decisions aren’t made by a single person — and contracted a social worker to steer students in the right direction.

“You can’t reach a child unless you absolutely create a space in which they feel comfortable to learn, grow and make mistakes, and those brave mistakes are often the things that helped them grow and learn the most,” Hill said. “I’m just really proud of my staff for creating an environment where students can thrive and have thrived.”

Just shy of two years into her tenure at Audubon Gentilly, Hill says that there is still work to be done. After getting staff feedback, the school is working on offering more professional development. It’s also bringing in community experts to work with its teachers on quality math instruction, Hill said.

This past school year, more than 50 district schools demonstrated an overall improvement in their school performance scores. The district’s school performance score rose from 66.9 to 69.8, more than three times the state’s growth, which Orleans Parish School Board President Olin Parker said motivates the board to continue strengthening its focus on gaps such as literacy or attendance.

But while the district maintained a “C” letter grade and its level of academic performance over the past year, almost 20 schools saw their performance drop. Sixteen district schools received a “D,” while five received an “F” and are now facing the risk of closure.

Hill said the school district would benefit from having a forum for schools to learn from each other and discuss academic achievements.

“It’s less about replication and more about collaboration… and I say collaboration because we are a network of all charter schools that operate independently,” Hill said. “There are pockets of really amazing things that are happening in the city that [are] worthy of being shared.”

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