Saturday, May 15, 2010

Alternative education

I'd first heard of Our School at Blair Grocery -- an alternative school for at-risk youth focusing on urban farming and social justice in the still underdeveloped (and after Hurricane Katrina swept through, rather infamous) lower 9th ward in New Orleans -- from some food justice folks about a week before I rolled into the home of the Saints. The setup sounded like a grass roots, home school arrangement, and had been started by a larger-than-life educator and advocate known locally simply as "Turner." Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Nat Turner, I learned later, is a passionate, articulate force of nature, a mover and shaker in the company of folks like Will Allen (voted one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2010), and destined to become a household name in food justice circles soon, if he isn't already. Actually, quite a bit of the work being done at the school is modeled closely on Mr. Allen's work at Growing Power, and I have heard about the school in New Orleans incorporating a regional Growing Power training facility into its future plans.

I haven't met the man, but the Blair Grocery school site was imbued with the strong presence of its founder. The teachers all spoke very highly of the dynamic man who had started the project, currently housed in a structure that was the neighborhood's first black-owned business many years ago (the Blair family's grocery store -- ironically in a neighborhood now miles from the nearest grocer), with the goal of empowering young men and women through challenging classroom lessons and incorporating hands-on learning to produce clean, healthy food in (and for) the local community. And yet I don't get the sense that he's all big-headed from the 20 seconds I spoke with him. While the one name thing kind of reminds me of Che or Madonna -- who needs two names when you're that famous, right? -- when I called a number a friend had given me for the school, I believe it was the cell number of this "Turner" who nonchalantly passed along the number of another teacher at the school. (I thought it was the general school number. Doh.) In retrospect, I am moderately mortified to have simply asked for Cory's number. That's like calling Obama's cell number and asking for the White House mail room. Okay, maybe not that extreme -- Cory is also an amazing teacher -- but still, after more recently watching a YouTube interview with him explaining the drive behind the desire to create this alternative setting for at-risk youth to cultivate successful, well-educated adults, you can maybe glean that I feel a bit sheepish for not engaging Mr. Turner in a discussion of the school's philosophy, curriculum, and progress thus far. I'm lame. And entirely too shy to call back.

Luckily, I managed to connect with Cory on Monday morning and Ollie and I headed over to volunteer for the afternoon. Conveniently, I arrived just before lunch time, so after some work with Kyle stitching some coffee sacks onto the newly built shadehouse (it looks kind of like a greenhouse, but it's meant to protect young plants from extreme sun, wind, and high temperatures), Cory asked if I might want to help make lunch. Well. As there were no students in attendance that day, the longer time we took on the preparation and consumption of lunch with the group of teachers and volunteers meant I had a chance to learn about the school a bit more. I was impressed with the intelligence and enthusiasm of the group, as well as with the intensity of the topics covered in the curriculum: gender equality, race, immigration, healthcare policy, food access. These were lessons for kids, some of whom are considered one offense shy of entering the prison system. The space, the lessons, the student-teacher ratio (roughly 1.5 : 1), the fact that students in different wards of the city are picked up and brought to school by the teachers, make the school unique. And, I hope, a successful alternative education model.

After lunch I helped to seed about 20 flats with lettuce, peppers, mustard, and more while Cory and Kyle (who has years of experience working on professional development with educators nationwide) led a staff meeting and lesson discussion. Brennan, the garden manager, joined me a bit later to harvest a sizable bagful of arugula seeds from plants that had been drying in the rafters. (Seed saving, yay! The process involved stuffing the brittle arugula bunches into a large burlap coffee sack and beating it against the wall to loosen the seeds. I'm pretty relaxed these days, but I can imagine this being a pretty good tension-relieving activity, FYI.) By 4pm, it was time for Ollie and I to hit the road in an attempt to beat the rush hour traffic and make our way to Todd's place uptown. Not a bad way to spend a Monday, though I would've enjoyed seeing the classes in action. Maybe next time I figure out a way to get myself back to New Orleans. And there will be a next time....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti