Charter school touts diversity
New Orleans — For Josh Densen, leader of the Bricolage Academy charter school approved at last week’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting, the new school’s objectives boil down to two things — advancing education equity and creating innovators to change the world.
“We want to create makers — kids who want to build things and design things and learn from that process, kids who want to creatively solve problems,” Densen said.
The school will open in the fall of 2013 with a kindergarten class of 72 students. The plan is to add one grade level each year. A location has not yet been finalized, but Densen said he hopes they will have at least a temporary location by January.
Based on his experience teaching in Oakland and Harlem, Densen said that he is motivated by the idea that all kids can learn regardless of where they were born or the income level of their parents. When the New Jersey native moved to New Orleans with his family about five years ago, he began the process of looking at schools in which to enroll his daughter for kindergarten. There wasn’t a single school that was able to incorporate three aspects important to Densen — no academic entrance requirements, social and economic diversity and academic excellence and rigor.
Densen began talking to parents and found that there were others who were looking for similar things. The informal conversations became more frequent and formal, evolving into community meetings and eventually a charter application of his own.
The name, Bricolage, is defined as:
1: Construction or creation from a diverse range of available things, or work created by such a process; and
2: A way to learn and solve problems by trying, testing and playing around.
Densen said he often goes back to something said by New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein: Educators should not rest until every school is a school to which they would send their own children.
Imaging the world about 17 years from now when his 4-year-son will graduate from college, Densen said he wants his child — and his students — to be prepared for the diverse environment in which they will live. Essential traits for the future include being able to have the empathy to relate to, cooperate with and compete against people who don’t share the same background, Densen said. Unfortunately, most schools are too homogenous, Densen said, and are “not adequately preparing kids for success in that future world.”
Densen cited a demographic prediction that the 2030 New Orleans will have no ethnic majority. Ten years later, Densen said it is predicted that the country will have no ethnic majority.
Another study done for the Department of Labor that Densen quoted predicts that 60 percent of the jobs that current grade school students will be filling don’t even exist today.
“Change will happen,” he said. “We need to prepare kids to manage that ever-changing world.”
For the second goal, creating innovators, Densen described a curriculum that will include a daily class called “Innovation,” which will “put kids in a position to build things, potentially fail and learn from that process.”
At a “pop-up” classroom Densen organized to gain input from kids, one exercise was giving children 3 to 7 years old the task of using supplies such as marshmallows, paper cups, toothpicks and tape to figure out how to get across a river. From bridges and stepping stones to shark tanks and submarines, the kids came up with some unique solutions, he said.
As plans for the school progress, Densen said he will hold more events to gather input from kids, as well as strongly promote community and parent engagement.
In 2008, Densen turned down a principal job in New York and moved to New Orleans to take a position leading a local branch of the national educational data nonprofit The Achievement Network. He said he wasn’t sure how long they would stay in New Orleans. All he knew was that it would be a minimum of three years. But it didn’t take long for his family to fall in love.
“I feel like I’m living in the most interesting, vibrant city in the world,” he said. “It’s filled with a lot of optimism and hope, and that’s contagious and an environment I want my kids to grow up in. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”