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Magic is something you’re supposed to see. It’s hardly ever something you can feel. The students at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, LA are in the mouth of something magical and they know it. They can feel it. The euphoria at this school is unexplainable.
It’s the 8th year for Principal Harold Clay and he has figured out a formula which just may be the remedy for the troubled Louisiana Public School System. “We run our school like a college,” said Clay. “From the moment they step on this campus they forget they are still in high school. They hear the word college more than they hear their own names.”
At the end of their 2017 Graduation program, held at Xavier University in New Orleans, the arena transformed into one massive Second Line Block Party filled with excitement, enthusiasm, and bursts of pride. Principal Clay had just announced some incredible numbers which showed this class as not only one of the top classes in New Orleans but one of the top classes in America.
Edna Karr’s Class of 2017 broke Louisiana State Records. In 2016, the school earned $7 Million in Scholarships, mostly through the Topps Program. However, this Class of 2017 reached $6.8 Million by themselves. The Topps Scholarships won’t even be announced until mid-Summer. Clay estimates they will reach near $10M in Scholarships once the Topps Financial Aid is announced. “Topps has been an asset to our students in previous years but we devote a staff specifically to enhance college placement,” said Clay. Shawn Johnstone leads Edna Karr’s gifted personel who work relentlessly to connect students with universities.
Students at Edna Karr High School don’t get a free week for Spring Break. When most kids are relaxing, their students take one week to visit colleges all over the country. “They get a chance to walk on the campus, see the dorms, and begin imagining themselves there,” said Clay. The school has taken students to Howard, Hampton, NY State, Spellman, Tuskeegee, Dillard, UNO, FAMU, Clark Atlanta, Southern, and many more. Clay says they have fundraisers and a team of people who work together to find grants which allow them to do these trips each year.
When Clay was assigned to Edna Karr eight years ago, the school was a B school. The school is now an A rated school and it’s one of the few A rated Louisiana High Schools. It has received an A status for two consecutive years. This year the school’s football team won the Louisiana 4A State Championship and they were undefeated the entire season. Their track team has won the State Championship for three consecutive years. Their biggest promotion this year was when Beyonce selected their band to be featured in her “Formation” video but then featued the band a second time on her Lemonade Digital Video.
Clay says the Beyonce video caught them by surprise. ‘Queen Bey’s team researched New Orleans because it was the theme of her leading video for the new project. In their research they chose Edna Karr’s band to feature in the popular “Formation” video in which she performed at the Super Bowl the same week the video was released. “We were told it was going to happen but we couldn’t say anything about it. It was very hard to keep that a secret because we weren’t even expecting the opportunity. Our band is grateful for the opportunity to work with such a phenomenal artist,” said Clay.
Edna Karr’s success has not only attracted the support of Beyonce but last year the school was embraced by Ellen Degeneres. “We got a call from Ellen congratulating us on our academic success. She does so much to support New Orleans from afar,” said Clay of the popular Talk Show Host and Comedian. At the recent graduation, their success even attracted the interest of Michael Eric Dyson, popular Black Author and Activist. Dyson sent a video which played on the big screen for the whole arena to see him salute the students in his own way.
Clay, who went to Warren Easton High School and Dillard University in New Orleans, says being at Karr doesn’t feel like work to him. “I am invested in New Orleans. I am part of a team that makes no excuses for transforming the academic face of this city,” said Clay in reference to the Inspire Nola Charter School System which governs Edna Karr High School along with a few other schools, all high performing schools which have made INCS one of the top Charter Systems in the region.
Clay, just 43 years old, said the key is to make sure the climate of the school is ‘hot’. “This has to be the place they would rather be than home.” Maybe, that’s the reason Saturdays at Edna Karr look similar to a regular school day. “Our students come to school by choice on Saturdays to do extra work or just to be around each other.” The school also offers after school tutoring every day of the week in which teachers are required to volunteer to work a day. “Our football players leave practice and come right to tutoring. The band members leave practice and head directly to tutoring,” said Clay. The school has a separate bus route that doesn’t leave the school until 6pm everyday for the multitude of students who voluntarily choose to stay three extra hours every day of the week.
“Kids want to go to the school with the total package. They want the Arts. We have an incredible Arts program. They want the hot band. Our band is fantastic. They want Sports. We are State Champions in multiple areas. But most importantly, kids also want to go to a school that has proven to give them the best chance to get in college. Thugs are not popular at Edna Karr. Smart guys are cool here. That’s why many of our athletes are also honor students.”
After their graduation, students were in line to take pictures and get autographs from the Principal as if he were a celebrity. Several students hugged Mr. Clay with tears in their eyes admitting to him they will never forget their four years at Edna Karr. “A 9 year old kid walked my wife and I to our car after graduation. His family allowed him to walk with us. He had tons of questions about Edna Karr,” said Clay. The kid told the Clays, his goal in life is to graduate from Edna Karr High School. “If we can get High Schools to have the same impact on young kids as Colleges have on High School students we can then change the structure of public education,” he said.
Karr only has 300 open slots for Freshmen this year but the school has had more than 2400 to submit. In New Orleans, students must apply through the One App Platform in which parents can hope to get in any school in the Parish if slots are available. Once a school goes through the initial submissions, if an application is incomplete or unacceptable in any way, a school may choose from a second tier list. According to Clay, Edna Karr already has 400 students waiting on that list. Nearly 3,000 parents are wishing, hoping, and praying for an opening at Edna Karr.
“The beautiful thing about what we’ve built is that we are not a private school. Parents don’t have to pay extra money to get their kids the kind of education they are used to seeing in private schools. In many aspects, we are outperforming the private schools. We don’t pick students according to family income. All students have a fair shot at our program,” said Clay.
At Karr, students earn $100 cash for making an AP Score of 3.0 or higher. “We have to start speaking their language. These kids don’t want a certificate. They want to get paid. If we tell them school is their job then they should get a check.” The school’s alumni help accumulate the necessary funds to pay the students. They line up and are each given $100 cash in front of their peers. “Seeing your friend get paid makes you do whatever you have to do to get paid the next time.”
He completely understands the desire parents have to get their kids in a quality school but he also understands why many of the kids are left behind. “I have been that kid seing his parents go through a divorce. I have been that kid on a Saturday morning waiting on his father to come pick him up and he never shows up. I understand why a mother has to work two and sometimes three jobs to give her child the best possible opportunitites. My mother was that mother,” he said.
He and his wife, Dr. Latasha Clay (a reknown Author), are raising two kids of their own. “My wife understands the mission. She knows the role I play in improving the mental health of these kids.” Edna Karr’s dynamic program keeps him away from home a lot but Dr. Clay doesn’t seem to mind. “My wife says it’s always sexy to see a man walking in his purpose,” he said with a blush. “When I am home the family gets 100% of my attention.”
His last words to this Senior Class shook the building and will undoubtably last in their minds forever. He told the Class of 2017, “They have lied to you. The best things do NOT come to those who wait. The best things come to those who go get it. So, go get yours.”
Edna Karr has 1100 students. The Class of 2017 graduated 260 seniors and they graduated 100% of the class. No child was left behind and 89% of the Senior Class received College Scholarships. Harold Clay is the first Black Principal at Edna Karr in 50 years. The same night of Karr’s graduation he was inducted into the Warren Easton Hall of Fame.
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