Editor’s note: Denisha Merriweather, director of family engagement at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter, recently interviewed Arianne Craig Jolla, who had dreamed of being a teacher since she was in fourth grade. Frustrated with school administrators who expected her to “teach to the test,” which wasn’t working for students who needed help with basic math and reading skills, she left the system and started her own school, HYPE Academy, in New Orleans. Here is an excerpt of Merriweather’s interview.
Merriweather: Where did the vision to found HYPE Academy come from?
Craig Jolla: My mom was a para-teacher (teacher’s assistant) for about 23 years, so education was a big deal. Even though she was a single mother who lived in poverty, she made sure to help us in every way she could. My mother would take us to the library where we would do our book reports and other school related work. That really helped to develop my love for learning, but the bug to teach and educate was born in my fourth-grade teacher’s classroom.
When I walked into Mrs. Weber’s classroom and she put her name and phone number on the board, it felt different. We did not think teachers were human; We looked at our teachers as superheroes. So, when she put her number on the board it just made her feel so much more accessible.
I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I really want to do for other kids what she did for me.” She made me feel safe, cared about, and she made me feel like I mattered. I knew then that I wanted to go into elementary education. So, I attended Dillard University here in New Orleans and got my bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education. I started teaching immediately that summer and I also started working on my master’s degree.
I started teaching and I absolutely hated it. I hated waking up in the morning. I hated going into the classroom and it was mainly because I felt like a failure. I felt like my vision of teaching was to go in and do for those kids which she had done for me. However, the reality of it was that I was hired to teach a test. I was hired to prepare kids for standardized testing.
It was also difficult to take in account all the other things these children had to overcome. Many of them came to me without having a foundation. For a lot of them they had no basic math or reading skills. To be honest, there was this humongous gap between what I was expected to do, perform miracles in my opinion, and what the reality was. These kids were not equipped with the basics. I did that for about five years before I decided to go to a different parish to teach.
I started teaching in the top parish in the state. I thought that this parish would be better. When I started teaching there, I was one of maybe two African American teachers in the school and most of my kids were not African American either. In the back of my mind I thought, “It must be us.” For a moment I thought it must be an African American problem.
However, when I started teaching there it was the same as my last parish. That is when I realized it was a system problem. I believe that our system is set up for kids to fail.
At this time, I was teaching at a middle school. I remember one day we were called out of our planning periods to have a department meeting. This happened very often. The principal started to chide us because our children had not reached their benchmarks. I remember one of my colleagues said, “How in the world do you expect us to teach these kids how to pass this test when many of them cannot do basic math or reading?”
I will never forget what the principal said, “I don’t care what you do. Just get them out of here and let them be high school’s problem next year.” This happened around October. By Christmas I had put in my two weeks and by January we started HYPE Academy.
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