Urban Schools Change Their Vocabulary

Sep 17, 2014

The Albert Wicker School is now Success Preparatory Academy.
Credit Eve Abrams / WWNO

It used to be that most kids went to places called schools to get their education, and in those schools, kids were called students. But in recent years, the vocabulary around schooling — especially in urban areas, and especially when it comes to charter schools — is changing. In New Orleans, where all schools receiving public funding are now charters, we investigate what’s behind this new school language.

I started off with a little experiment. I asked a bunch of adults: where did you go to school?

“I went to Newton Elementary School, Newton High School.”

“Epiphany School.”

“Folsom Elementary School.”

I went to Academy of the Secret Heart.”

“Valena C. Jones School.”

“I went to the Moses Brown School.”

“Word of Life Academy.”

“Warren Easton High School.”

“Public School 38 School in Jersey City.”

I also asked a bunch of kids — New Orleans kids. And it turns out, a lot more of them go to places called “academies.”

“I go to Belle Chasse Academy.”

“Trinity Episcopal School.”

“Morris Jeff Community School.”

“Langston Hughes Academy.”

“I go to Craig Charter School.”

“Um, I go to KIPP. KIPP Central City Academy.”

“Arabi Elementary School.”

“Mount Carmel Academy.”

“Sci Academy.”

“Success Preparatory Academy”

“KIPP Leadership Primary Academy.”

That word, academy.

“It goes back to Plato. And it has a long history of intellectual exchanges,” says Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University in the history of education. Cuban’s specialty is school reform and teaching.  He says our idea of an “academy” comes from Europe and traveled to the United States in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

“Think Phillip Exeter, Andover. Private schools for elites where intellectual learning would occur. So it has that kind of pizzazz and kind of a caché.”

Caché — something struggling New Orleans schools haven’t had much of. By naming themselves academies these schools hope to instill pride in both students and teachers.

Cuban travels around the country doing research and consulting, and he says naming schools academies is part of urban school reform.

“I have yet to run across an affluent suburb that does this stuff. Have you?” he asks me.

No.

“Okay. So it’s an urban phenomenon. It’s aimed at children of color because it’s very hard to get experienced, highly skilled teachers into urban schools," he says. "[The renaming] is, I think, aimed at both teachers and kids.”

When a publicly funded school is named or renamed an academy, chances are it is a charter school with strict standards and a no-excuses model.

“I have a son. He goes to Akili Academy,” says parent Kiera Cheneau. “That used to be the old William Franz, where Ruby Bridges went to.”

Cheneau has seen this change from school to academy first hand. Not far from Akili Academy, she once attended classes at George Washington Carver High School. Which is now George Washington Carver Preparatory Academy.

“It’s to elevate the status of both the kids that come there, the teachers, and take on the mantle of something that is highly respectable,” says Cuban. “And by naming something you increase its value.”

And then there’s another word.

“A scholar is like a person who’s from Akili. Who does what they need to do, and who’s been told what they do,” says Jada Brown, a fifth grade scholar. All Akili students are scholars. 

“It’s a big term for us,” says 4th grade teacher and grade level chair Julie Patterson. She says Akili Academy uses the word scholar to set Akili apart from previous schools their students have attended, and to send a message.

“We have big goals for you,” explains Patterson. “We have big ideas. So you’re not just a regular old student. You follow our values, you follow our school rules. That means you’re a scholar.”

“No word is magical in changing behavior,” asserts Larry Cuban.

But, he adds, the word scholar elevates the possibilities.

“By renaming, kids — and teachers also — can see themselves as performing different kinds of tasks at a higher level than before,” Cuban explains. “And it’s not just plain doing worksheets. It’s more important than that when you use that word.”

Cuban says these words are just tools. It’s easy to say them, but much harder and more complicated to live up to the lofty promises they hold.