Hurricane Katrina forced educators to think outside the box, and New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, nicknamed “Sci High,” still embraces unconventional thinking.
Take leadership decisions as an example: After two failed attempts to replace retiring school founder Barbara MacPhee, officials gave up the typical search for an experienced outside candidate and promoted from within. Chana Benenson and another administrator, took charge. The co-principal team carried on MacPhee’s guiding principle that all children can succeed in the difficult subjects of math and science.
“I did not think school administration would be my path,” says Benenson, “but if the school has a need, you just step up and do it.”
Five years ago, when she became co-principal with then instructional coach Claire Jecklin, who has since moved on, Benenson was only 32.
Formerly a French and Spanish teacher, she had been dean of students for a year when she was tapped to replace MacPhee, who was retiring for the second time.
The decision proved fruitful. Sci High students scored the highest average composite score on the ACT college entrance exam of any New Orleans open- enrollment, public high school in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to state figures posted by Education Now!, a website that follows school trends. That feat becomes more striking when compared to the early days when the majority of students couldn’t read at grade level. MacPhee hired a specialist to fix that problem, she said in a 2007 New Orleans Magazine interview.
The school’s origins go back to 1993 when MacPhee, a former Orleans Parish School Board administrator, opened a half-day math and science program housed at Delgado Community College. When Katrina wrecked that facility, MacPhee and supporters won a charter to open a full-day school at Allen Elementary School, located on Loyola Avenue.
Benenson, a Washington state native who had been a Teach for America teacher at a different New Orleans school, was one of several teachers that MacPhee recruited. Just three months after the storm, Benenson was helping move whatever was salvageable from the old building to the new.
“We opened our doors and took whoever showed up,” she says, “no transcripts.”
Now in its 25th year, the school stresses hands-on, technical training as well as preparing students for college. In addition to the usual high school courses, Sci High offers training in areas such as computer science, construction and nursing. Over the summer, Benenson says 70 students had internships in their chosen fields.
Sci High is all about on-going personal growth and flexibility, she says, which is reflected in the nautilus, a sea creature housed in a many-chambered, circular shell that serves as the school’s mascot. The goal is to educate students to be as adaptable as the nautilus, which has survived and evolved in changing environments for millions of years.
“Metaphorically, for our students,” Benenson says, “it represents the next phase of life.”
The blue and white nautilus theme shows up all over the school, including nautilus-shaped inlays in the flooring and in Benenson’s personal style. She wears nautilus-shaped earrings and blue fingernail polish.
The school’s efforts are noticed. A group of 10th graders lounging outside its red-brick facade one day in August gave Sci High top marks. One described it as “fun” with “good teachers.” His two friends agreed.
Is there any higher praise?