NOLA Micro Schools: A Conversation with Leadership

Q&A   16 July 2019
By Kim Gibson, NOLA Micro Schools, and Ryan Robert, NOLA Micro Schools, and Jack McComb, NOLA Micro Schools

 

There’s nothing we’re doing that is necessarily revolutionary. We are just giving a voice back to the people I think need to be in the conversation.

Kim Gibson
Founder and Head of School

Q: What path led you to NOLA Micro Schools?

Ryan: I went to college for visual arts and quickly got into teaching. Although I wasn’t practicing visual arts directly, it felt like there was still a piece of me that was doing what I was passionate about. My first teaching job was in a Catholic school. The structure was very traditional, very old school.

After doing that for a few years and having the desire for some more excitement, I went abroad and taught conversational English in South Korea. I eventually found my way back home to southern Louisiana, where I worked at a shipyard for some time. I still felt the desire to travel and work with young people, so I went abroad yet again.

This time, I found myself in Thailand, which was very different from my time in Korea. In Korea, I was teaching at what would be considered a private school where the students would go to a specialized private English Language Academy after a full day of school. In Thailand, I worked at a government public school, run by their king.

During my summer vacation, I decided to come back home to see family and friends. During my trip back, I ran across NOLA Micro Schools and their mission and vision. That was my first exposure to a model that let the students drive their learning. Somebody cared about them as lifelong learners and not just numbers who were asked to stay seated and do things like rote memorization. That was really exciting.

That was three years ago, and now I’m starting my fourth year as the high school guide for NOLA Micro Schools.

 

I was thankful because my parents really listened to me. I think it’s really important to have parents who are willing to experiment. It’s a big deal to take a risk where it might work out or it might not.

Jack McComb
Young Learner

Jack: I went to a language immersion school during my elementary years. Up until fourth grade, it felt like the right environment to be in. Things changed when I noticed how frequently we would go over the same material and topics we learned in previous years. There were also a lot of behavioral interruptions in class, and I wasn’t really learning as much as I was before. I was also going through some social issues and that was apparent to my parents. So, they were ready to see what other options might be available.

In a typical situation, you would have two school options—you go to your local public school or you pay for whatever private school you’re interested in. The thing about New Orleans is we don’t necessarily have those norms. Nearly everything is charter-based, and you have to be accepted. It is a challenge to get into a good school. The one I previously attended was somewhat difficult to get into, so if I was going to ask my parents to leave, I would definitely have to convince them.

I was thankful because my parents really listened to me. I think it’s really important to have parents who are willing to experiment. It’s a big deal to take a risk where it might work out or it might not. But, I definitely felt that making this change was going to be the right decision for me.

My family and I began looking for a new school and heard about NOLA Micro Schools from a friend who used to go to the immersion school I was in. Once I started learning more about the school, it fascinated me, and I just wanted to be in. I wanted to be able to learn like this. I wanted to drive myself and not just have someone else tell me what to learn. Now that I’m in, I’m responsible for my work, and I’m learning at my own pace. I think that just really jived with me, rather than the normal “sit down, be quiet” school process.

 

Parents have to be willing to give kids space to just take some time to get used to something different. When they do, it’s amazing to see what happens.

Kim Gibson
Founder and Head of School

Kim: One of my early formative experiences came while working with “street boys” at an orphanage in the Peruvian jungle. I watched kids learn with very limited resources. They were simply given the space and time to actually dive into something. I didn’t know at the time that that would play a role in where I am at this point.

But, about six years ago, my oldest child (one of four children) had gone through two different charter schools in New Orleans, and I could see her losing her curiosity for learning. I didn’t think she was getting what she needed to be prepared for life. So, I teamed up with a gentleman named Matt Candler who runs an organization called 4.0 Schools, and we just started looking around the country at different options.

We ran across a couple different inspiring places, came back to New Orleans, and then I piloted different programs with a pop-up style learning experience for about 10 months. I hosted free classes and camps that lasted anywhere from a single evening to a full week and simply had kids try a lot of things and asked for a lot of feedback from them. At the end of each experience, we asked if they liked it, if they would come back. Going through these iterations gave us the space to test out some hypotheses and discover what worked, or didn’t work.

We eventually garnered enough interest with some parents and kids to officially launch NOLA Micro Schools. In our first year, we served eight kids. Now, going into our fifth year, we’ll be serving 65 kids.

Q: Jack, what compelled you most when you were introduced to NOLA Micro schools?

Jack: Everyone had motivation to do something. They were excited to learn, and I think that’s something that’s so lacking in a lot of schools in New Orleans. In my previous learning experiences, I didn’t feel pushed or motivated by others or myself to learn. I didn’t feel like I was working toward anything meaningful. That’s where NOLA Micro Schools really stood out.

Q: Kim, what has been most effective in enrolling parents and guardians into this way of “doing” education?

Kim: I think it takes a really special group of guardians to take a risk on something like this. What I have found, especially before our first year, is there are a lot of families already looking for an alternative. They are frustrated in their current place; they just want their kids to be challenged more; or they are looking for their kids’ learning experiences to be set up in a different way. When we first opened, I think our founding families were already looking for something new. Our goals just collided at the right time.

In subsequent years, as we’ve tweaked our interview process a little bit, we’ve tried to do some intentional and targeted marketing. What we have found most successful for new teammates (what we call our students) is to make sure everyone—the family, the child, and the staff—is on board and on the same page. That is something we’re constantly trying to get better at, along with remaining as transparent as possible with families.

Oftentimes, parents assume we’re this incredibly alternative, New Age model of education, when in fact we’re really going back to the basics of education. There’s nothing we’re doing that is necessarily revolutionary. We are just giving a voice back to the people I think need to be in the conversation.

Like Jack said there’s a huge risk for families who choose to leave their current charter and test out NOLA Micro Schools. We acknowledge the fear and own the fact that you’re taking a risk—you’re trusting us to do something different, and you’re trusting your kids to learn in this way.

We let them know the change takes time. It’s not a quick fix. We have a lot of new teammates who come in and have to unlearn a lot of information they’ve been given in more conventional settings. Parents have to be willing to give kids space to just take some time to get used to something different. When they do, it’s amazing to see what happens.

 

Most people in our country believe there are no other [education] options out there. It governs the way they think and leads to a blissful ignorance about education.

Ryan Robert
Guide

Q: Ryan, what kind of conversations do you have with people who don’t work in education about your work? What opens their eyes to what’s possible in education?

Ryan: When speaking to guardians who are outside of our community at NOLA Micro Schools, we probably hear the same questions over and over again. Before I engage people about the work happening here, it’s important to know how open-minded they are about alternative perspectives, methods, and opportunities within education as a whole. Most people in our country believe there are no other options out there. It governs the way they think and leads to a blissful ignorance about education.

I think very early on in the conversation, we’re either going to light a spark of curiosity in somebody or they are just going to write us off because it sounds too absurd.

In my experience, what we do here actually does light that spark of curiosity most of the time. It’s funny how a conversation at a restaurant, your neighborhood grocery store, or at a park can begin as two or three quick questions and all of a sudden, half an hour later, we’re still talking about what this person wants for their kids, grandkids, or nieces and nephews.

Once again, our work is not revolutionary. This is really common sense, and I think that’s why it sells itself. If I talk with somebody and ask, “We do X, Y, and Z in schools, can you cite an example in any real-world situation, regardless of city, state, or country where you see X, Y, and Z outside of a school setting?” A lot of time, the answer is: “No.”

That begs the follow up question, “So, why are we teaching our kids to do this for 12 to 18 years of their life? What are we truly preparing them for?” Something as simple as that conversation is going to open up the floodgates of fresh thought and generate a really great back and forth.

 

NOLA Micro Schools really teaches you the importance of accountability. They really make that set in. I think that’s probably one of the most important things that you learn here from the first day.

Jack McComb
Young Learner

Q: Jack, from your personal experience, what was a major shift you had to make to feel like you are getting the most out of the NOLA experience?

Jack: That people aren’t going to do things for you. It’s a really important life lesson. One simple way that is developed here is that we don’t have a janitor to clean up our mess. We are given 10-15 minutes each day to clean up our messes and organize our things. We don’t leave that to someone else, and I think it should be the same way with our education. No one in life is going to just do everything for you. That’s going to be your responsibility.

NOLA Micro Schools really teaches you the importance of accountability. They really make that set in. I think that’s probably one of the most important things that you learn here from the first day.

Q: Kim and Ryan, what’s the onboarding process for educators like?

Kim: My honest reaction to that as we have not done that well. That is a huge area of growth—to really think through how we onboard people to something that is really challenging the conventional way we were all taught to do things in education.

There are a few key things that I look for when I’m bringing on a new team member. If you don’t have a staff that’s willing believes that kids are actually capable of this, it won’t work. And, you need them to be flexible and curious about everything. I don’t think you can teach all of that.

With that said, I think onboarding into an environment like this comes with the responsibility of realizing that things are constantly iterating and changing. Being able to think big picture and think outside of the box is a critical skill. We have an incredibly diverse community at NOLA Micro Schools, and being able to interact with kids from very different places is a huge part of what our staff does. I’m more excited now than ever before to bring on somebody new because we just have a greater sense of clarity as to who we are and what we’re really trying to do.

Ryan: Jack and I probably had similar experiences coming here. We both had to unlearn what education is. It requires a willingness to approach the unlearning with a high work ethic.

As we go through that, there are qualities that make the onboarding transition a little more successful. I agree with Kim that my co-workers and I probably share some similarity in the sense that we bring flexibility, adaptability, grit, determination, and open-mindedness. 

It’s beautifully ironic in the sense that we’re just asking the teammates to do the same thing. It’s a huge step for all of us. This roller coaster is going to be a ride with ups and downs. I really enjoy the fact that the teammates that are here have gone through a similar situation to what I’ve gone through with the onboarding piece. It isn’t about “you’re the teacher; you’re the student.” We have similar experiences from day one. It forces us to practice what we preach.

Q: What do you wish people would ask you more often about your work in transforming education?

Ryan: Right now, the question I would just love to hear is: How can I implement this? I think that would be an exciting question to hear or to receive. It would signal to me that we’ve done something to spark your passion or curiosity and that you want to know more. 

Jack: I want people to ask: How does this type of learning affect [a child’s] future? You get a lot of different reactions from people when this question is brought up in general. The focus is often about how will education impact my child’s college options or future job prospects. I want this question about their child’s future to be seen differently—have it be about what will make them happy or feel prepared for life.

Kim: I wish they would ask more questions around how we can educate kids in places other than school. I think education should feel like this collaborative existence, where we’re communicating with people from different spaces and different cultures and being able to connect, regardless of age, in a bigger way.

We use this phrase “porous walls” all the time when we talk about people coming into our space and us going out into the community. I wish that happened more.

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