What we learned after Year One as a Super School

This innovative New Orleans high school focused on the environment has been open for a year. Here’s what they’ve learned so far.

By Team XQ

The co-founder of New Harmony High reflects on victories, challenges — and a few surprises

Congratulations, you’re starting a new high school! You’ve got a plan, a supportive community, and students eager to transform their high school learning experiences.

Now for the hard part.

Ushering a new school design from idea to reality can be daunting and humbling, often in unexpected ways. Countless schools in the XQ family and beyond have embarked on this journey, each with different goals, hurdles, and results.

New Harmony High in New Orleans — a charter school devoted to the environmental health of the Gulf Coast — has encountered its share of obstacles since it opened in fall 2018. But the staff, students, and community have overcome them with ingenuity and grace.

Here’s what school leader and co-founder Sunny Dawn Summers has to say about her school’s evolution from idea to XQ School.

Sunny Dawn Summers is the school lead and co-founder of New Harmony High. 📸 | New Harmony High

What were some of the most significant challenges New Harmony faced in its earliest days?

One of our biggest challenges was finding a facility. We wanted a site that was close to water, so students could study and learn outside the classroom. Ideally, we would be on a river, which is such a symbol of transport and connectivity. But we also needed something close to public transportation, internships, and other programs. Our students come from all over the city, so we needed to be centrally located.

Ironically, several sites we looked at were endangered by sea level rise and flooding. We even looked at a barge, which would have been great, but there were too many safety, maintenance, and cost constraints.

The process was, at times, very frustrating. Fortunately, I’m an optimist. We finally secured a site near City Park, where we’ll move this fall. The site is perfect because it’s near public transit as well as open space and water, where students will have a chance to canoe and kayak. Students will be able to easily get to school and reach their internships, and spend time in the park studying local ecosystems.

We’re so fortunate to have this opportunity. It was a longer process than we anticipated, but because we took our time, we were able to ask, what are the most important things moving forward?

What role did students play in the development of the school?

Students have been involved at almost every step. We learned early on that if you make decisions without the voice of your students, you might as well stop where you are. At our school, students are even part of the hiring process. They get to help decide who their teachers will be. They learn valuable skills, such as interviewing, and they’re more invested in the school.

At New Harmony High in New Orleans, students investigate problems that threaten their region, such as coastal erosion, land loss, sea level rise, community displacement, and ecosystem damage. 📸 | New Harmony High

All students at New Harmony participate in internships. What were the challenges associated with that?

This turned out to be a much larger bite, from a logistics perspective, than we were anticipating. Talking to parents, preparing students, working with mentors, setting goals and evaluating progress, arranging transportation … it was an operational challenge, to say the least. We solved it by hiring a full-time community coordinator, who has been amazing. Internships are so important for students, we felt it was a priority to make sure this process ran smoothly.

Any obstacles related to teaching and learning?

The biggest challenge was not knowing what skill levels our students would be entering school with. There were huge academic gaps, which made it hard to plan. Also, we had far more students with IEPs and 504 plans than we anticipated. The national average is about 12 percent, but we’re at 44 percent overall. We ended up hiring two interventionists after the start of the school year. Next year we’re adding two case managers and a director of special education to lead that team.

We can afford it now, but funding will be an issue at some point. We’ll have to find ways to make this staffing sustainable.

What have been the bright spots?

The students are wonderful, and our staff has been amazing. They are the most incredible group of people I’ve ever worked with. There have been times I’ve been in tears, because we have such a deep love and appreciation for each other. We’ve seen each other develop in the most beautiful ways.

What have you learned in the process?

I learned that there was so much I didn’t know — but that turned out to be the best-case scenario. I had an open mind, and we all worked together to tackle issues as they arose. Our original vision for the school had to change a little, but I think we’re a stronger school because of it. In the process, we realized there were some things that were non-negotiable to us: Internships, hands-on learning, high-quality content, student voice and choice. Those things did not change. Those things are the core of our school.

New Harmony is a great example of a school overcoming obstacles, adapting to change, and thriving after inevitable bumps in the road. Building on Sunny’s reflections, Mary Ryerse, XQ’s managing director of school success, has these tips for other schools navigating their first year:

  • Keep your original vision at the forefront.
  • Hold true — relentlessly — to what you know to be non-negotiable. This likely connects to your vision!
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Recognize what you and your staff already know, as well as what you don’t know.

Remember, you are not alone. Through XQ’s Knowledge Modules, MOOCs, videos, and other resources, you have access to people and tools that will help you. We are all here to learn from each other.

Do you have experience as a teacher or leader at a new school that you’d like to share? Please contact [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!