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Answering Katrina's Call


Jennie Moctezuma

Jennie Moctezuma

Jennie Moctezuma was working on a master’s degree at NYU, her Teach for America days in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, long behind her. Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and the calls started coming in from former TFA connections urging her to come back down to the area to work as a school leader.

It was a big step – and a big jump in responsibility – but when TFA arranged a scholarship for Moctezuma to attend Teachers College’s Summer Principal Academy in New York – concurrent with a field placement as an art teacher at Batiste Cultural School in New Orleans Parish – she decided to take the plunge.

Things happened quickly from there.  ReNew Schools Charter Network took over Batiste and a sister school and asked Moctezuma back as Batiste’s Dean of Students. The following year ReNew made her Pre-K-2 principal of the sister school, now named Sci Tech Academy.

“We took over the two lowest-performing schools in the parish,” says Moctezuma, who, on top of her new duties, coaches current participants in the SPA NOLA program. “We said we were going to take every child who’s there – we weren’t going to have an application. We said it wasn’t the kids’ fault that the schools were the lowest performing. We said, ‘We’re going to have the adults do the right things, and the right adults are going to do them. That’s been our approach, and it’s been pretty successful to date.”

Moctezuma adds that, as principal, she’s been well served both by her SPA training and her prior knowledge of the area.

“I actually hired on several of the older veterans who I knew would be the bedrock,” she says. “They had been my mentors when I first got to the school, so there is always that question of, ‘Okay now, technically I’m your leader. Are you okay with that?’ But I think that, because we had gone through such craziness together, they knew I shared a similar passion and had a similar background of understanding.”

For example, when Moctezuma decided, early on, to use her budget to hire new teachers, the veterans, rather than feeling threatened, told her they appreciated what she was doing.

“Some teachers didn’t think a 28 to 1 ratio with another person in the room was any different -- they still saw it as a 28 to 1 ratio,” she says. “I saw it as 14 to 1, and so did the people who had been in the classroom when it was 39 to 1. So the people who shared that historical context with me were able to help the newer teachers understand the environment they were coming into and how it had evolved.

“When you’re in the trenches teaching, you know what children are capable of, and it just feels like there’s so much red tape tying your hands,” she adds. “I went into leadership to be the type of leader who could untie red tape for teachers and encourage them to do the things they knew were best for children so we could get the job done right.”

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