At Encore Academy, there’s always a lot going on.
Before meeting The Lens for a tour one Monday, school leader Terri Smith marched into her school’s main office at 2301 Marengo Street, a sniffling young scholar in hand, giving him a stern talking-to for his classroom acrobatics.
The student had jumped from a classroom chair in the middle of a lesson. She gently told him how dangerous the stunt was and that his mom would be informed of his misbehavior. After leaving him to dry his tears with another staffer and stopping for a brief conversation with someone else, she was ready to lead a tour of the building.
Depending on the day, Smith’s morning can include a situation like that times five. In addition to acting as disciplinarian-in-chief for the Uptown elementary school’s 150 or so students and leading its staff of 22, she deals with the challenges that come along with managing a first-year charter school.
Her school’s building, which she shares with another charter, is still under construction, with workers hammering away to finish the school’s gym and its theater as students are in classes. Many of her books and supplies, brand-new, are still in boxes, waiting to be placed on shelves in a library that hasn’t yet been furnished.
The frantic pace of things aside, she’s grateful simply to house her students in a building, compared to the modular classrooms at many New Orleans schools.
Encore Academy is the Orleans Parish School Board’s first new charter school since the board chartered 11 schools following Hurricane Katrina. Smith wanted Encore, an elementary school that emphasizes music and other exploratory arts, to have an arts focus because “arts seemed to be disappearing from the schools.”
But she also didn’t want the program to choose art over academics. “We felt pretty strongly that you could do both. You could provide a really great academic program for kids, as well as an exploratory arts program.”
The school offers an individualized approach to student instruction, in which teachers evaluate students daily and then teach according to their needs.
Since the school is only in its first year, it isn’t yet clear whether this approach will pay off on state standardized tests.
Getting its start
Smith credits an advisory group, including colleagues and Adrian Morgan, Algiers Charter School Association interim CEO, with helping her start the school. But she comes to the CEO position with more experience — she’s been in education for almost 30 years —than most leaders in the charter school movement.
Smith’s background includes experience in the classroom and in charter school management. She taught fifth and sixth grade for 16 years and has spent the last 10 years in various management positions, first as a lead teacher, then as an achievement vice president at Edison Schools, a national charter school management organization. In that role, she helped school leaders implement academic programs in New York and Pennsylvania.
Almost five years ago, she moved to Louisiana, writing charter applications for a Baton Rouge charter school association and serving as chief academic officer of the eight-school Algiers Charter School Association. After a while, she and three others began shooting around the idea of starting a charter school.
Last August, the Orleans Parish School Board released its call for charter school applications, the first in nearly five years. After assembling a core group of board members, Smith took a chance and applied. In January, school board members granted Encore conditional approval, contingent on them improving their financial plan.
In May, the board approved the school’s fall opening.
An arts focus
Though Encore is chartered to enroll pre-kindergarten through eighth graders, it started its first year with pre-kindergarten through third grade and a fifth grade. Initially, Smith didn’t want to start too large because she wanted to “do things right.” That means starting with primary grades first and meeting their needs, while at the same time slowly building a middle school to get the culture right, she said.
Encore wasn’t even supposed to enroll a third grade this year, but parent demand necessitated it. Recruitment has not been a problem, the result of aggressive advertising through billboards, flyers, and word-of-mouth referrals. By August, there were waiting lists for nearly every grade.
Smith thinks that’s partly the result of Encore’s unique, arts-based program. Students spend 90 minutes each day in arts classes, which, for now, include vocal and instrumental music, French language, and dance and fitness.
But they don’t neglect the academics, she said. Every day, teachers spend an hour collecting data on students’ academic needs. Based on those evaluations, teachers regroup students across grade levels.
Schools commonly use that individualized method for their most troubled students, but Encore is unique in that it uses the measure with each child, Smith said.
Though the school strives to be known for its academics as well as its music, its music teachers appreciate the arts attention. Nathaniel Money said he felt supported at his previous employers, but music never took the spotlight the way it does at Encore. With each student getting music instruction for 45 minutes a day, the school’s attention to music is a unique challenge, he said.
In most schools, “you come on as a teacher, in many scenarios you’re in a room with little to nothing to use, you have very little time, and it’s like, how am I going to do something meaningful?” he said. At Encore, “we have all these resources, we have all this time. We’re thinking of all the things we can do.”
While she stressed that any decision to expand the one-school charter group would be up to Encore’s governing board, Smith doesn’t have any immediate plans to morph into a charter management organization. First, she’d like to do what she promised in her charter application – deliver strong academic instruction alongside an arts-based curriculum, with an individualized focus on kids.
That means getting her enrollment up to pre-K through 8, and – hopefully – getting renewed in five years. “I don’t think we anticipate any difficulties in getting renewed,” she said. “I know that process really well from working with charter schools.”
Money hopes for more performance opportunities for his students. His students may play the Kids Tent at Jazz Fest next year, he said. He’s not ruling out the possibility of a marching band for some of the older students, but they’d have to gauge students’ interest, he said.
In the short term, however, the thing Smith’s most excited about, are “the kids,” she gushes.