High School Leader Reflects on Their Founding Class as They Graduate
A Q&A with New Harmony High’s Sunny Dawn Summers
Overcoming adversity is nothing new for the students and staff of New Harmony High, an XQ school in New Orleans. In fact, meeting challenges head-on is a key component of the mission and culture of the school, where students learn how they can make a difference in solving the environmental, social, and economic challenges impacting New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta today and in the future.
New Harmony will have over 300 students next fall, but the school began in 2018 with a class of 45, and this year it was all about celebrating the class of 2022, who held their graduation at Carver Theater, an historic spot on Orleans Avenue. Students heard from transgender rights activist and New Orleans native Mariah Moore, as well as from classmates who reflected on their time at New Harmony.
Three years ago, we spoke with school leader and co-founder Sunny Dawn Summers at the end of the school’s first year about the victories, challenges, and surprises she discovered launching an XQ school. Now, we caught up with Summers again to learn more about the school’s first graduates and what the future holds for New Harmony.
Sunny, congratulations on your first group of students graduating. What was it like seeing these students, many of them founding students, graduate?
It was bittersweet. You want them to go off and become adults and not be your students anymore—they’ve grown out of that—but you still want to see them every day. It truly feels that the school has been my baby and these are my kids in a lot of ways. Luckily one of our students is going to be one of our first alumni hires. They will be working on sustainability, making sure we’re living our mission in our trash and food and composting and gardening programming. Two other students are helping out with the summer camp right now, and I get to see them every day. We have some kids going to do traditional four-year school. We have some kids going to do community college, some doing trade schools, some kids going to work. Most of our kids are doing some kind of post secondary schooling.
Like the rest of the world, New Harmony has faced a lot of challenges these last four years. In addition to COVID-19 and remote learning, the school also lost several members of its community, including a teacher who was murdered during the school’s second year. How have you weathered these tragedies?
At a certain point when you’re in a storm for so long you get desensitized to the rain. I think all of us are changed people. The global pandemic sits on top of all the regular troubles for a public school, then you add the trauma and grief of losing people who feel like family, and living in a city that hasn’t weathered COVID-19 very well. New Orleans is one of the hardest hit cities in America. So much of it is because of underlying health issues and systemic oppression. It’s hard to work in a system and know that no matter how much you try, there are still factors outside of your control that are going to become barriers to your work and your students’ lives. We’re a close knit group of people, and it’s been a challenging four years to say the least.
But the kids are the bright spot. They are constantly growing and showing these huge leaps in their personal journeys and we celebrate that. There’s always a silver lining to all of it, and you learn from it and reflect on it. You see ways that you can help kids have a greater sense of belonging so their time with you is as rich and deep as possible.
Sunny, the last time we spoke with you was at the end of your first year. The school has grown significantly since then. Can you tell us about some of those changes?
The biggest way we’ve changed is that we’ve had to make some concessions between what we want to do and what we have to do. There are still so many elements we have to do for the state—not that they are negative elements—but certainly required pieces that distract you from enacting your vision to the fullest extent. I wouldn’t say we don’t have the same vision and drive and mission, but my job has turned into making sure we get to stay open in many ways. And in order to provide what we provide to all of our kids means we have to be a charter school and jump through those hoops, because otherwise we wouldn’t be accessible to the kids we are accessible to. But we’re creative, and our kids still get to do the coolest stuff. For example, we code our outdoor adventure classes as Physical Education classes to meet state requirements. Students get to be outdoors in the field and learn about mission-aligned careers, plant trees, and see how urban gardens look. It’s an example of how we create the richest opportunities inside the box of what we have to do for the state.
Student voice is a central tenet of the philosophy of New Harmony. How have students shaped the way the school looks today?
The kids have such incredible insights. I wouldn’t want to do this job without them. We’ve never hired a single person who hasn’t been vetted by students, because our students participate in interviews. I try to let them be and debrief after, but it’s such a joy to watch. It gives the students a chance to tell what it’s really like, and it gives the prospective teacher a chance to ask questions. It’s more work but it’s almost less work because you know these people coming in have been vetted by the kids who say, “yeah, we’ve selected these teachers.”
We also created a trauma-informed culture guide to roll out this summer to provide insight, like a roadmap or handbook, to help our staff embrace what we’re trying to do around restorative justice practices and we included student voices in that. Everything was done with the input of students. Our social worker was meeting with groups of students and talking about what we’re trying to do to keep our school culture strong as they graduate–what are the ways to further embrace restorative practices, to support teachers struggling with kids who are disinterested– and none of that was done in a vacuum, all done with student input.
From the beginning, New Harmony has sought to play an active role in the community, partnering with a number of New Orleans nonprofits and cultural and environmental organizations. What’s the response from the community been like?
It’s been beautiful. We have a reputation for a few things. We’re known as a school where it’s safe to be yourself, no matter your sexual orientation, gender identity, class, race, background, choice in fashion. And we’ve had a reputation of serving students with diverse needs really, really well, and part of that is because of the belonging and acceptance and embracing of kids for who they are and what they come to us with. And we’re also known as a partner who wants to learn from and with community organizations. We’re not just doing it for show. We truly want our hands in the dirt. Our community partners love what our kids are doing. I think because our kids are such incredible humans and know their value, they aren’t afraid to give their opinion.
You’ve spent four years helping navigate New Harmony from an idea to an XQ school. What have you learned that you would share with other school leaders?
Have a great support system, and try to be open and learn from what others bring to the table. You’re never going to know everything. At the beginning, I think I made some rookie mistakes. I still make rookie mistakes, and everyday has a new set of challenges. As you’re becoming a leader while you’re building, you’re destined to make a lot of mistakes, but hopefully you’re doing it with kids at the center and asking for feedback to make quality changes. Now, I look at this beautiful thing that lives and breathes on its own. Even though I’ve made mistakes as a leader, I also know the beauty that’s been birthed from it is something we should be proud of.
Read more about New Harmony High and how its students are preparing for the future, from their efforts at coastal preservation to exploring climate change through storytelling. And learn more about all the XQ Schools at: xqsuperschool.org/schools