Entrepreneurs Redefining Education in New Orleans

This post by Blackstone Content Correspondent Summer Suleiman originally appeared on ideavillage.org.

Justin Bayer had just returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio after spending the summer in New Orleans, although he couldn’t seem to shake the feeling about something in the city.

He had taken part in a launch program with 4.0 Schools an incubator that assists education-based startups, for his company, “Welcome to College”, an online platform that assists high-school students in the college decision making process.

Justin Bayer IDEAInsider“When the summer wrapped up, and I went home, there was something pulling me back in a pretty powerful way,” Bayer said.

Days later, he was invited to apply for another accelerator program with The Idea Village, a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs in New Orleans.

He was accepted into the program, and that was enough for him to decide to move his wife and three young children to New Orleans.

“Being in a place that has the energy to bring educators and entrepreneurs together to tackle education issues, and the opportunity for learning in so many ways was what drew me back,” Bayer said.

It’s that same energy that drove Billy Schrero, a Tulane graduate and Venture for America fellow, to explore a creative approach to education and entrepreneurship in New Orleans.

As a Tulane student, he was involved with growing the university’s debate team. Schrero saw the opportunity to merge entrepreneurship with his experience working with youth. He co-founded Startup Effect, a non-profit that offers an entrepreneurship enrichment program for middle school students in transitioning U.S. cities.

“The goal is to expose students to different career paths and opportunities and to show them that entrepreneurship isn’t this huge mystery. If you want to start a venture, you really just have to dive in and start learning and talking with people,” Schrero said.

They launched their first pilot program in the spring of 2013 in schools in New Orleans and Detroit.

“It’s really about trying to shift their mindsets about being passive recipients of knowledge and experiences, and getting them to start thinking about what problems they want to address,” Schrero said.

He says entrepreneurship has become a part of the changing education landscape in New Orleans.

Much of that change is due in large part to the city undergoing major reforms in education in the post-Katrina recovery era. The New Orleans public school district now has more students enrolled in charter schools than any other school district in the nation. Louisiana was ranked the second strongest charter school city in the country, according to a report released earlier this month by the National Alliance for public Charter Schools.

“I think we’re in the early days of seeing entrepreneurship’s impact on the New Orleans education system, but people are aware that there’s a symbiotic relationship that exists, and there’s just a need to bring it together now,” Schrero says.

Last week, Schrero represented Startup Effect at “One Young World”, a global summit for young leaders in Dublin.

Bayer and Schrero are joining a league of entrepreneurs in New Orleans who have taken the lead on an “Ed Tech” movement. Several education startups have been birthed in the city in the past several years. Kickboard a data-driven tool that helps teachers assess students’ progress, Enriched, a group that matches schools and organizations with substitute teachers based on their skills and interests, and Tutti Dynamics a multimedia platform that powers immersive learning experiences online, were all founded in New Orleans.

One New Orleans charter school is also working with students early on to integrate entrepreneurship into education, rather than as a secondary component.

Josh Densen is founder of Bricolage Academy, a public charter school for Kindergarten and first graders that focuses on innovation as a part of its curriculum. The school, which is home to about a hundred and fifty students, is currently shares space with a historic synagogue in the city.

Bricolage Academy is housed in Touro synagogue in New Orleans

Densen, a New Jersey native, taught at public schools in Oakland and Harlem before moving to New Orleans to establish the local chapter of the education non-profit “The Achievement Network”. The very meaning of the word bricolage, defines the school’s mission: construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. In French, the term is defined as tinkering.

“We need to reimagine the way we approach education. There’s a lot of work being done around the country in personalized learning, and there are some pilot programs in New Orleans, and I wanted to be sure that part of the educational opportunities that we afforded to kids capitalized on students’ independence and their ability to be able to drive their own learning,” Densen says.

Within the past few years, innovation rooms or personalized learning spaces have become “en vogue” as Densen puts it, in schools across the nation.

Last year, the American Institutes for Research cited a report titled, Are Personalized Learning Environments the Next Wave of Education Reform?’ showcasing the results of personalized learning pilot programs in sixteen schools across the country.

“We wanted to create kids who were innovators themselves, and not just operating in a new and innovative space. We wanted them to build their own capacities around creative problem solving, and that’s what we do here,” Densen says.

The school has an innovation class that meets three times a week where students learn the fundamentals of design thinking and basic engineering concepts. They learn how to prototype, gather feedback, and test their ideas.

Densen points out that the purpose is to ignite ideas about where students might find opportunities to apply creativity to solve problems, and what they need to do to test out those ideas.

For a city that has seen tremendous progress in education, Densen says there is a unique opportunity for educators and entrepreneurs to learn from one another and it is important relationship to be had, but it’s still a matter of figuring it out.

“I think that entrepreneurs have a lot to offer to the education landscape in New Orleans. I think the experience of entrepreneurship is one of learning from failure, and one of resilience, and one of great enthusiasm, and that’s not dissimilar from what we expect out of kids,” Densen says.