This is the final piece in NSNO’s series, “The Future is Bright.” We have profiled incredible educators from across our community. They are helping our students build brighter futures through the work they do each day, and their leadership creates a brighter future for our schools and our city.
Many of these educators are connected through programs NSNO leads for:
Some share a school building, a network, or a mentor. All of them are united in their purpose to give our students the best possible education, and in so doing, build a brighter future for our children and for us all.
Today, we profile Kenya Harry of Village de l’Est Elementary School.
Kenya Harry, 1st Grade Teacher at Village de l’Est Elementary School, Enters Her 14th Year in the Classroom
Kenya Harry teaches first grade at Village de l’Est Elementary School, part of the Einstein Charter Schools network. She says that if you followed her students onto the playground, you might hear three different languages on a single day. She feels her school’s diversity is one of its great strengths, and she sees and hears it every day in her classroom.
Most of Harry’s students speak a language other than English–many have moved to New Orleans from Spanish-speaking countries, and some speak Vietnamese. Last year, less than half of Harry’s students spoke English as their first language.
Harry notices that students sometimes teach other new words, but they play together regardless of whether or not they share a vocabulary.
“I love watching them. They learn language so fast…a lot of our other students who are not Spanish speaking, they pick up Spanish very quickly. It’s really amazing. It’s really refreshing. Because it’s first graders, they play on a playground, and there’s no ‘this group stays here, that group there,’” she explains.
Harry says it goes beyond the playground. She’s an experienced educator who is deeply committed to the profession; she’s entering her fourteenth year as an elementary-school teacher, and her fifth as a first-grade teacher at Village De l’Est. She says that, because of the diverse community in the Village de l’Est neighborhood, the school is more diverse than most. Last year, about 50% of students at Village de l’Est were Hispanic or Latinx, nearly 40% were Black, and just over 10% were Asian-American. Harry grew up going to New Orleans public schools, and she says the Einstein network stands out for its diversity.
“It’s really different working here at Einstein, and I love it,” she says.
Her school leaders and colleagues value building an inclusive environment that feels like a family. Students embody this, too.
“They’re just so respectful of each other’s differences,” Harry says. “They’re so open to each other’s differences. They learn from each other’s differences and they ask questions, and they’re just so comfortable.”
This curiosity and openness fosters academic progress, especially now that school has switched back to in-person learning.
“Last year in particular, I noticed such growth in my students from day one. I hadn’t seen that growth in the prior years due to COVID,” Harry says.
For her students learning English, there was a particularly profound shift.
“Just seeing them go from a lot of them not being able to really even verbalize English, to being able to read English sentences and write English sentences, is really rewarding. They can see the progression in their own academic journey.”
Harry recalls a moment when her students’ sense of community and their academic growth came together. As part of Harry’s social studies curriculum, her students made physical timelines of their lives. They paired photographs with descriptions of their experiences, and presented them to one another.
“The children were so proud of their journeys from babyhood to first grade,” she says.
Harry recalls seeing photos of family celebrations, like Mardi Gras and Vietnamese New Year. Students pointed out traditional foods their families cooked, and talked about the differences in how they marked their birthdays.
“When they share their family images, or images of them growing up throughout these six or seven years, you just see how different we are, but how much we are the same. It was just nice when they had to present and show their pictures and share. And everyone was very welcoming. Everyone was like, ‘okay, we do that too,’ or “you know, we’ve never heard of that,’ so that was a teachable moment.”
Harry says she feels proud in moments like this. They make it clear that she’s in the right profession. She received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in public health, but after starting her career in public health, she felt the call to education. Her mother had been a teacher, too, and she’d seen the impact the role could have.
Ever since she began as a teacher, she felt it was a strong fit for her, and now, she feels she’s reached a point in her career where her classroom runs smoothly and she can push herself to try new things and meet new challenges. She looks forward to coming to school each day.
“I just have a genuine joy for it. I have had workplaces where I got up in the morning, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t feel like going.’ But I never feel like that. I’m just like, my kids are gonna miss me. So I wake up, and I look forward to coming to work every day,” she says.
“Because they’re my joy, and this is my gift.”