NOLA’s Historic McDonogh 35 Thrives as Community Charter
Louisiana’s first Black public high school, McDonogh 35 in New Orleans, just celebrated its 105th anniversary. As an alum, I had the honor of taking part in a Career Day and sharing my work journey with current students.
A few years ago, if you had told me 35 would become a community charter and I’d like it, I wouldn’t have believed you.
But the anniversary weekend showed the new 35 off to the fullest. McDonogh 35 family past and present celebrated on the school’s still-newish campus. It felt like the same 35, with many of the same people, just in a bigger, more modern building, surrounded by green space.
New Orleanians hold 35–a symbol of Black excellence–close to our hearts. After Hurricane Katrina, when our schools were drastically reshaped by charter schools, 35 stayed under local district control. The biggest change was the school’s new location: moving from its historic home in Treme to a larger, new space near Gentilly.
Despite 35’s recent academic struggles and isolation as the last district-controlled school in New Orleans, many of us were afraid to see it go charter, fearing it would be managed by ill-equipped outsiders.
But local charter network InspireNOLA’s commitment to community has since won many over, me included. These educators have earned the title “community charter.”
35 Needed a Revival, But Who Could Make it Happen?
For many decades, McDonogh 35 had a reputation as producing “the best and brightest” young minds of New Orleans, especially among Black New Orleanians. But after Katrina, the school strayed from that vision. In 2001, Louisiana recognized 35 as a School of Academic Achievement, but by 2017, it was only earning a “D” in Louisiana’s accountability ratings.
Of course, we can’t ignore the upheaval of New Orleans and its schools brought by Katrina. New Orleanians were already suspicious of change, and Katrina solidified that skepticism. Change hadn’t been done with us or for us.
To many outsiders, the charter movement post-Katrina looked like a good thing. And there have been some benefits. But overwhelming changes in schools were sometimes followed by their closure. These problems continue today.
Back in 2018, when InspireNOLA proposed taking over McDonogh 35, alumni, me included, feared our beloved, historic school would be altered beyond recognition–or even, eventually, closed.
Fortunately, Inspire NOLA, a charter network with real roots in our city, stepped forward to preserve and restore 35.
InspireNOLA, a Home-Grown Charter Network, Steps Up to The Task
InspireNOLA was founded in 2013 by veteran New Orleans educators Jamar McKneely and John Hiser. By 2018, Inspire had a track record of turning schools around. Though alums initially wondered whether Inspire could restore 35 without ruining it, the community-based charter network has risen to the occasion.
InspireNOLA has now managed 35 for four years. During that time, they were able to graduate older students and start fresh with a new freshman class and subsequent classes.
It’s beautiful to see the community in both the school and charter network, and how InspireNOLA lets schools remain true to their identities.
“Now we have community because of Inspire,” said theater arts teacher Troy Poplous (‘88). “We are now back in a community of educators and a system again.”
McDonogh 35 always felt like multiple schools in one, and it still feels like that today. Yes, it’s college preparatory, but it’s also perfect for aspiring artists, athletes, military, and workforce. In fact, when McDonogh 35 students asked for electives in cosmetology and phlebotomy, InspireNOLA made it happen.
“The kids spoke, and InspireNOLA listened,” said seniors’ counselor Tamara Woods Collette (‘89). That’s what a community charter looks like.
Letting 35 be 35
InspireNOLA also let McDonogh 35 keep our traditions: colors, motto and, of course, our legendary mascot, the Roneagle, short for the Iron Eagle. As written by then-student Myrtle Watts in 1928, the Roneagle is “the mightiest, swiftest and most resourceful of all creatures,” due to its iron toughness–made of iron and fed on iron.
InspireNOLA also lets 35 be 35 by supporting our alumni association. “Inspire was really instrumental and gracious in letting our alumni association be a very big part of our culture at the school. That makes a huge difference,” said juniors’ counselor Alisha Foucha (‘90). “You have people from as far back as the ‘60s who come into this school and bring wisdom and who can offer things. Inspire embraces that.”
When asked if they have ever had to push back on any InspireNOLA decisions, the alumni-turned-staff I spoke with said it has never come to that.
“The network in general has been pretty willing to support the sacredness of our traditions and legacy,” said Romero Stewart (‘04), senior manager of internal relations and family engagement at InspireNOLA.
Working at Their ALMA Mater
There’s a longstanding tradition of 35’s graduates coming back as faculty and staff. Stewart returned in 2004, right after his graduation. “I devoted the life of my career to McDonogh 35 because of what it meant to me, what my teachers poured into me,” Stewart said.
“I could name at least 30 people on the faculty and staff here at 35” who are graduates, Collette said. “We know what 1331 [Kerlerec, the former school site] all taught us. That spirit of excellence, an expectation, those high standards. And we try to instill that in the students, and even teachers who are not alumni.”
How to Build a Community Charter
InspireNOLA’s experience with 35 offers lessons to other charters. Poplous offered perhaps the most critical piece of advice: “Listen.”
“Bring back people who remember what the schools were and what the schools meant to them. You bring those people and teachers back into those schools and you’re very intentional about it. I think that’s the best thing you can do for your charter," Foucha said.
“Oral histories are important,” Stewart said. “Get together to preserve your history, tell your history.”
By doing these things InspireNOLA has created a roadmap others can follow to build community charters.
“I absolutely love it,” said alum-turned counselor Collette. “I absolutely love what InspireNOLA acquiring McDonogh 35 has done to build the standards back up to what they were, and I absolutely love being here.”
Photos by Megan Braden-Perry and courtesy InspireNOLA.