By Florentina Staigers
Working in education in this city, I’ve begun to realize that Shantell Lee and the countless other New Orleanians who have succeeded are really something to be celebrated. Not because they are some sort of an anomaly, but because they are not an anomaly. Despite so many structural barriers that work against her and others like her, Shantell has risen to success—and not just success defined by the normal social markers of education and money. She is also successful in the ways we often take for granted: in her kindness, compassion, and willingness to serve the community.
I first met Shantell in the classroom. We were both students in the University of New Orleans’s master’s program taking a non-fiction course. At that time, I noticed she was smart and friendly, but I was too absorbed in my own studies and focused on laying down roots in New Orleans to get to know her. Then, about a year ago, we began sitting in education policy meetings together. Although I still didn’t know her very well, I had a clearer picture of who she is simply because I know New Orleans a bit better. I began to see her in a new light. I saw how important her story is to the educational narrative of New Orleans. We spend so much time speaking about statistics, quantifying success or failure, or debating policy that we sometimes lose sight of the spirited people around us doing the hard work.
Recently, I asked Shantell to talk about her education journey.
There was not a whole lot that surprised me about her story because I’ve made it my job to be familiar with both the data and the people’s stories around me since moving to New Orleans. I didn’t have to be surprised to be impressed and inspired. Shantell was the kid we all hoped to have in our lives and who teachers wanted in the classroom, the kid who despite poverty and despair that was engaged and driven in the classroom.
She attended elementary school in New Orleans, but in middle school, her parents transferred her to Jefferson Parish, where all of her classmates were white. Shantell experienced culture shock, but she learned to adapt and to “code-shift” in her new environment. She was also grateful for the support she received. In the 8th grade, one of her teachers asked her to work on the school newspaper because she was excelling in her English classes and enjoyed writing. “She saw something in me before I saw it in myself,” Shantell said. The teacher talked to her about college and gave her encouragement. Before this, she hadn’t really thought about college.
“My parents didn’t really have time to focus on my education. They were always working. My older sister was a lot different than me. She attended New Orleans Public Schools and I used to ask her why she didn’t bring books to school. No one was checking my report card or talking about college. No one knew how to get into college or about scholarships.”
When she did apply to college, she applied only to Dillard because she was interested in an HBCU and they had accepted her before she got around to finishing an application to Xavier. She was also pregnant her senior year in high school. She went to school half day and worked part-time at a local grocery store.
But for her, the real challenge was the first year of college. “It was HELL,” she told me. “There was just a lot happening. I had a baby. I was still working nearly full time. My mother passed away and I was on academic probation by the end of the 2nd semester.”
She relayed this to me fairly casually, but I was still amazed. I couldn’t imagine those kinds of struggles my freshman year. I had gotten so stressed out by my statistics exam, I’d started having tension headaches. Shantell’s story put it all in perspective. At every step in her education, she had to overcome the heaviest burdens and the biggest of challenges to achieve the same level of success as most students. Thankfully, Shantell had support in the form of a professor who helped her secure internships and encouraged her to obtain her Master’s degree.
At Dillard, Shantell also saw the difference between her skills and the students from Orleans Parish. “Some of those students didn’t know how to write a paper. In Jefferson Parish, I was writing five-page papers all the time my senior year. I saw there was a different standard. We knew how to write and do research.”
In hindsight, she was grateful for the opportunities she’d been given and wondered how it would have been different if she had gone to Orleans Parish schools. “There was a school newspaper, so I was able to have that ah-ha moment with that teacher in the 8th grade. And that doesn’t exist in Orleans Parish. Even if there was a teacher who saw my potential, there wouldn’t have been a track to put me on. And classroom sizes are very different. A teacher probably wouldn’t have even had the time to see that I was good.”
Shantell has a lot of knowledge about education, not just from her own experience, but she also has been working in the education field for the past few years. In her current position, she helps parents with One-App, which is the school enrollment system in New Orleans. She also helps run after-school programs. Asked what she thinks about schools today, she doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s very, very scary. Our kids in the afterschool program don’t know how to do the work. If it was just one, that’d be different. But it’s the entire fifth-grade group. And I ask them, ‘Well, where are your notes?’ and they tell me they aren’t allowed to take notes. They don’t have textbooks and no notes to reference either. How are they supposed to succeed?”
She also shared some of her thoughts on education reform. First and foremost, she wants parents to be empowered to send their children to the right school. When it came to her daughter going to kindergarten, she had an excel sheet and wouldn’t even consider the worst performing schools.
“I want them to do research and stop sending their babies to horrible schools. I want them to ask questions; be involved.” This is why she sometimes sends parents home with their own homework assignments while helping them with One-App. She explains to them that there is more to a school than a letter grade. She asks them questions about medications because perhaps their child needs a school with an on-site clinic or a nurse. Or does the school have a zero-tolerance policy? “Because that might not work if your baby is anxious,” she says.
She also questions the turnover of teachers. “Passion and compassion can’t be taught. When only half of the teachers are coming back, that creates inconsistency in the school, in the child’s life.”
I can tell she cares very deeply about the children she works with, but she didn’t actually expect to be doing this work. She laughs. “People always told me I’d end up in education. I always said no. I told them it doesn’t pay and I need money.” She imagined she would go on to get her Ph.D. and teach literature at the university level, but working as a graduate assistant and seeing how the dynamics of racism, classism, and sexism operate in academia, she began to change her mind. She had also applied for an internship in literacy that was supposed to be with adults but ended up as a program for kids. She loved it. She loved talking to kids about their lives and hearing their perspectives. This is when her ideas about her career path really began to shift. She saw the harsh reality children were facing and knew she could provide hope through her own experiences.
“Some of those kids aren’t thinking about college because no one has told them about it. They need someone to say, ‘You’re good at this.’ They think you need money. But I tell them my family was poor-poor, and I still made it.”
At the end of the interview, I asked Shantell what she would say to herself as a child and what would she tell the imaginary self that went through Orleans Parish schools. She thought about it for a moment before answering both.
“You are as smart as you think you are. And you can do whatever. It’s important to tell my teens that. They aren’t told that enough.”
I nodded. I gave her a hug and left from the meeting full of hope. Shantell’s story is certainly a story that makes it seem possible.
Florentina Staigers is an independent policy consultant with a background in law, sociology, and non-fiction writing. She currently works in the education field, but has also worked in immigrants’ rights and women’s rights. Florentina also writes for the secondline blog in New Orleans.