Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Education Machine Made Me Want to Leave Teaching, Then I Founded My Own School

Arianne Craig Jolla had the dream of teaching since she was in fourth grade. But after getting her bachelor’s in education, teaching wasn’t what she expected at all. School after school leadership pushed teachers to teach to the test and that just wasn’t working for students that lacked basic math and reading skills. After having one principal say, “I don’t care what you do. Just get them out of here and let them be high school’s problem next year,” Arianna knew she had had enough. She put in her two weeks notice and a few months later started Hype Academy. 

Where did the vision to found Hype Academy come from?

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 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 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.

That is quite a fast transition. How did that work out so quickly?

The idea of founding my own school really started when I homeschooled the daughters of my tenants in my garage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the schools were shut down due to the devastation the storm caused, and we were all waiting to go back. So, I started homeschooling these girls and we even came up with the name “Hype” during that time in my garage. 

Unfortunately, Hype Academy was not possible then because we were not making enough money. So, when the schools opened back up, I went back with Hype in the back of my mind as a potential possibility.

Rather than giving up teaching altogether, I decided that I should change my approach versus walking away from teaching altogether.

Once I went back to teaching at the school I knew I had to get out of that system. I have loved teaching since I was in elementary school. I knew I did not want to leave teaching and I didn’t think that it was fair to me to have to give up my love, my dream, and my passion. So rather than giving up teaching altogether, I decided that I should change my approach versus walking away from teaching altogether.

So, that Christmas when my principal made her statement I decided that it was time. That day my colleague said to me, “Oh my God. How in the world can we do this to kids?” I told her, “I am not doing it.” I call that behavior academic malpractice and I absolutely refuse to be a part of it anymore. I refuse to be a part of this machine that just keeps turning out kids who are ill-prepared and who are not ready for real life. 

Instead, I decided to find a solution and that was Hype Academy founded on February 22, 2011.

When you founded Hype Academy did you do so with the intent of it being Black founded?

I definitely did not. I just thought of it as my contribution. When we started the school, we had give or take maybe 11 to 13 kids consistently a year. I really just looked at it like my own corner of the world where I could do my part with my gifts. But of course, your gift makes room for you. Since then, the school has just been growing, slowly but surely. 

What advice would you give to someone who was facing similar frustrations you were? What are the steps they should take?

The first thing you have to decide is what your non-negotiables are. What are you not willing to do? For me personally, I was willing to stay late, willing to take work home, and willing to talk to parents on my time off. What I was not willing to do was to be part of passing kids on to be someone else’s problem. That was where I drew the line. 

So, first things first is to decide where your line is. Once you decide where your line is, then use that to help give you direction. From there it is up to you to brainstorm on how to be a solution to the problem you are facing.

What does an average day look like at Hype Academy?

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 we ended the last school year virtually and have been doing school virtually since then. However, on a typical day we go into the building and pray together. We say our creed which is based on Romans 12. In the mornings we have meetings where we sit in a circle with the kids. There we play games, converse about current events, discuss course announcements, and the kids set goals for the day. Each child has an individualized curriculum that allows them to set goals for the day, to reach what we call marching orders for the week.

As of right now we are using an online curriculum which we learned how to use because of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina helped us learn how to provide the academic piece of education no matter where the children are. This really helped us when COVID reached the U.S. and because of that the students did not miss a beat. Other than that, we do P.E. with the students, have guest presenters and field trips once a month. We try to provide structure in a family-like environment.

Where did the name HYPE academy come from?

It is an acronym. It stands for Helping Young People Excel.

Do you think that there is a special flare to your school?

There definitely is. Of course, there is no one school that is a perfect “one size fits all”. However, for the kids that come to our school that have had challenges with the traditional system for whatever reason, they do well. Our first two graduates were attending a private school before us and came here because their system was boring them, they needed a quicker paced curriculum. They actually finished school early because they were able to work at their own pace.

Our prayer is that when you leave Hype Academy you will be proud and that you will be prepared.

We also had a student who came to us with some anger issues. He told us at his last school that he actually flipped over a desk. At HYPE we make it a point to treat every student as an individual. So, when this one child would experience those challenges with his anger, we were able to focus on him and resolve the conflict. There is no way that would have been possible at a traditional school, because the class sizes are too large to focus on any one student even if they are in a crisis. Sometimes kids are going through things and they bring it into the classroom with them. It is not their fault and we do not believe that that our kids are the problem.

I would say the flair we have is the ability to focus on individual care for the kids. We provide an environment where our children know that they are safe and that they can come to us whenever.

Do you have anything you want to say to your students?

We have some of the best kids at Hype Academy. They are all fantastic. I want them to know that we will keep challenging them. We are going to make sure that we give you exactly what we have as far as making sure that you are prepared for the world. There is no perfect environment. There is no perfect school, but our prayer is that when you leave Hype Academy you will be proud and that you will be prepared.

Photo courtesy of the author.
Denisha Merriweather
Denisha Merriweather was a tax credit scholarship recipient in Florida, the Founder of Black Minds Matter and is the Director of Family Engagement at the American Federation for Children.

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