Encore Academy is a charter school, but it looks and feels more like the kind of public school many adults remember attending when they were kids. In today’s New Orleans, where the charter school landscape seems designed to combat lackluster academic achievement — and little else — it’s rare to see a school that values the arts as much as academics. So how does Encore Academy, a stand-alone charter school, manage to stand out?
The first thing you notice when you walk into Encore Academy’s cafeteria at lunch or breakfast is the sound of kids talking.
“Well, they have to learn how to get along somewhere,” says Terri Smith, Encore Academy’s founder and school leader. “So this is the start of that.”
Unlike many charters with a “no excuses model,” Smith wants kids to be kids.
“If they cannot interact, where are they ever going to learn how to get along?” asks Smith. “And that requires some noise sometimes. That’s the way my kids grew up, and I felt like that’s the best environment possible for children.”
A lot of what you see at Encore Academy — an open admissions charter school beginning its third year under the Orleans Parish School Board — is due to the vision of Terri Smith, an educator for nearly 30 years.
“Since 2004 I’ve been in school management, and most of that in charter school management. And what we have seen is arts have disappeared. I’ve been in many, many schools across the country, and the arts just are not what they should be. They’re not what they were when I was a kid, not for my own children. And I have a problem with that.”
So when Smith wrote the charter for Encore, she put arts at the center, alongside academic achievement.
Starting in pre-kindergarten, students learn vocal and instrumental music, including time in Encore’s keyboard lab. Third graders begin guitar. In dance class, they learn partner dancing, swing and tap.
“They have music every day, and they have dance or fitness every other day, rotated with French,” explains Smith.
Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He says Encore is unusual in a place like New Orleans.
"A lot of the charter schools have been intensely focused on combating the challenges of poverty," he says. "But on the national landscape, it’s happily not unique. It’s tougher to raise the money to get schools like Encore started. Most foundations are very focused on tackling achievement gaps.”
Foundations are a huge funding source for New Orleans charters, and because they’re singularly focused, charters here tend to be quieter, more stern, and without arts and fitness as part of the school day, every day.
“A lot of educators who’ve embraced chartering are very mission driven about making sure they’re serving the most disadvantaged kids,” says Hess. “And frankly, especially when you’re looking for models to start new schools, there’s much more of a support infrastructure for people who want to launch no excuses schools.”
In New Orleans, this has led to franchises like Renew, FirstLine or Algiers: charters which have a set model and teams to support that model. Smith doesn’t have that kind of support for Encore.
“It’s definitely harder if you’re a stand-alone charter,” says Smith. “If you’re a stand-alone like us — Andrew Wilson, for example, or Homer Plessy — you don’t have anyone to call on, generally.”
What Smith does have is 14 years of experience in charters. She knows how to look creatively at budgets, contract out Encore’s administrative work, and share buses with other schools. Her ability to make these kinds of on-site decisions is why Smith left public schools; to put resources where she believes they matter most for children.
“We only had 329 children this year. We had two music teachers, two dance and fitness teachers, and a part-time art teacher and a French teacher,” explains Smith. “Initially the finance people, who are the experts, were saying: 'There’s no way this can work, Terri.' We just looked at things creatively and made it a priority, and we’ve proven for two years now that it does work.”
Last year, Encore raised its test scores by 10 points and is now a C-rated school. It’ll spend this year in the Dibert building on Orleans Avenue, where it hopes to raise its scores even more. Next year, Encore will move into the building it purchased in the St. Roch neighborhood — in the most appropriate place possible, between Music and Arts Streets.