NEW ORLEANS — Warren Easton Charter High School’s own personal guardian angel, actress Sandra Bullock, was honored last week as the People’s Choice Awards “favorite humanitarian” for her work at the Mid-City school.
Following Hurricane Katrina, which left 8 feet of standing water in the school, it was uncertain if and when the school would reopen.
A group of determined alumni and supporters formed a committee and applied for a charter to run the iconic school, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in the fall.
Easton, which has during the century educated all-male, co-ed, all-white and all-black student bodies, had a reputation for enduring and deeply rooted integrity and success. It reopened in the fall of 2006.
“Guardian angel” is the term charter board member and 1965 alumnus Arthur Hardy uses for Bullock.
He said that when Bullock first contacted the school, she considered remaining anonymous as a silent partner but decided to make use of her celebrity to help elevate the cause.
On getting to know the star on a personal level, Hardy said Bullock has “zero ego and zero pretense. She deflects all glory away from herself. It’s all about the children.”
Eternally loyal to the school, Hardy, proprietor of “Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide,” said that after the storm, he and others refused to accept a future without a Warren Easton and so became deeply involved in the effort to charter the school.
Hardy also landed the lucky job as Bullock’s liaison. He calls the school — before and after the storm — one of the bright and shining stars of public education in the city.
Unique from some of the other top Orleans Parish School Board-governed charters in the city, Easton is also an open admissions school and does not require students to meet selective standards in order to enroll.
“It’s a tradition. It’s a family,” Easton Principal Alexina Medley said. “When you walk in the door, you become a part of us.”
Preparing to reopen in 2006, Medley said that the board and leadership had figured out covering the basics, like teacher salaries and some education programs, but the needs that remained were many, and they were unsure of how they were gong to cover everything.
Hardy said it only took one visit for Bullock to fall in love with the school. In the past seven years, Bullock has provided funds for scholarships, football equipment, the renovation of the school’s auditorium and band uniforms, among others.
She also held a special premiere of “The Blind Side” at the school in 2009 and raised $100,000 in a single night.
Medley said that rather than just write checks, Bullock asks about what the greatest needs are and chooses specific projects accordingly.
She also responds to gaps. When the school held a fundraiser for band uniforms, they were short — and Bullock was there to make up the difference.
“If there is a need and we are in a crunch, she’ll help,” Medley said.
Bullock’s presence, with regular and often unannounced visits to the school, also impacts the students and teaches lessons on the value of giving back, Medley said.
Hardy describes Bullock as bright, funny and the “most ordinary and extraordinary person you’d ever want to meet. She’s just a real sweetheart.”
At an awards ceremony Tuesday night, Bullock accepted the first-ever People’s Choice award of its kind to one of the loudest standing ovations of the night.
In her speech, Bullock said her efforts don’t scrape the surface compared to what other volunteers and humanitarians she has met in New Orleans do on a daily basis.
Bullock adopted a son in 2010 who was born in New Orleans and owns a home in the city. She said in her acceptance speech that her son is the first reason she loves the city so much, but that Warren Easton is the second.
In the speech, Bullock called the school a place where each student knows they are loved and cared for and a place where the only option is success. In 2011, Easton students achieved a 100 percent graduation rate and 96 percent attendance rate.
“At Easton, we don’t allow you to do anything other than the best,” Medley said. “I think that’s her philosophy, too. She sees in Easton what she believes in, and that makes her a part of us and continue to be a part of us.”
At the ceremony, Bullock said she’ll give her award to the school for their trophy case — if they will have it.
“They are the ones who did all the work,” she said.
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