When Melanie Askew left her job in human resources, she had no idea that education would transform her life. All she knew was that she hoped to make an impact in her community. But a massive pay cut and a leap of faith would lead Askew to do something that hasn’t been done before. In Fall 2017, the 20-something former teacher will launch Elan Academy in New Orleans. Like many millennials, she started with a career based on societal pressure before ultimately landing her dream job.
Askew’s initial goal wasn’t always to become a teacher. She had a breakthrough moment and realized her true calling. “Feeling the pressure to enter a lucrative field, I took a job in human resources. After interviewing candidates for jobs and seeing the long-term impact of not having a strong education, I took a $20,000 pay cut and became a teacher. I needed to get on the ground and make an impact. Money was no factor as children’s lives were at stake,” said Askew.
As a kid, Askew was bullied a lot in school. It was reading books that allowed her to keep focus and escape what was going on: Perpetual bullying and a father struggling with Lupus. “I transferred from one school to another because of perpetual bullying. Unfortunately, day one at the new school, the bullying continued. I’ve heard everything from, “You think you’re cute.” to being physically threatened and called every expletive in the book. It was tough to balance academics with the bullying.” But even after school, things would still remain difficult for Askew. “Riding the bus home was absolutely torture. I would get off the bus and come home and help my father who was slowly deteriorating from Lupus.” It was her father’s struggle that allowed Askew to realize just how fortunate she was to receive this type of quality education from elementary through high school in St. Louis. Her father would pass away during her 8th grade year. She would begin receiving monthly social security funding, money her mom would use to supplement tuition to attend a private college prep high school. “It hit me that no parent, should have to die for their child to attain a great education. My siblings and all students should have had the option to choose, the system should not choose it for them.”
In high school, she was very involved, participating in student council, track, cheerleading, FBLA, directing the gospel choir, and the yearbook club. Her life changing moment would happen shortly after she crossed the stage, earning her bachelors degree from Vanderbilt University. “A bitter sweet moment, my siblings were cheering for me yet they had not had the opportunity to graduate from college. I wondered what was so different about me. After much reflection, I came to the conclusion that the only difference was the timing of my father’s death.”
Melanie Askew is undoubtedly passionate about making a change through education. She would go on to earn a M.Ed. in Organizational Leadership program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. A course taught by Dr. Donna Ford titled ‘Multicultural Diversity in American Education’ would change her life. Dr. Ford exposed her class to the inequities of the U.S. education system. “When I hear that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time, four times the rate for children with proficient third-grade reading skills, I’m inspired to change the narrative. If you add poverty to the equation, students are about three times more likely to dropout or fail to graduate from high school than those who have never been poor. We can debate all day as to why this is the case. From systematic oppression, segregation in schools, or place blame on parents and teachers. Whatever the debate, one thing remains true, our students need to read on grade level by the third grade and that is possible.”
Like many who relocate to The Big Easy, they fall in love with the cities rich history and culture. “I have learned that the history of New Orleans is incredibly deep and the value is priceless. While teaching in the Achievement School District, a district modeled after the Recovery School District in New Orleans, I studied what was happening in the city.” Post Katrina has seen an enormous amount of non-profits and education programs flock to the city. But the city that everyone loves come Essence Fest and Mardi Gras has struggled for years with its education system.
NOLA has the highest percentage of students that attend private schools. Its educational climate is unlike any other city in the country. By age three, children in the poorest families have a vocabulary one third as large as their more affluent peers. Kindergarten vocabulary size predicts reading comprehension in the middle elementary years and orally tested vocabulary at the end of first grade predicts reading comprehension ten years later. Research shows that a classical background has a pragmatic impact on academic success. All students at Élan Academy will enter middle school with a strong classical foundation prepared to continue on a path of academic success, and going on to attend high-performing high schools that will lead them to college.
Families who seek vouchers or are unable to afford a private school education can enroll at Elan and receive the same caliber of education at no cost. We are classical in nature but are clearing the understanding that our students must have the 21st century skills to be successful. Therefore we include blended learning, computer program coding, and leadership development.
Élan Academy offers a unique option for parents as the only public, tuition-free, classical school for the 21st century available in New Orleans without the added cost of tuition. Élan Academy is a place where parents can be sure their students are safe, valued, celebrated, and learn to become the next generation of leaders to access lives of opportunity. Élan Academy will provide an academically rigorous program that compels students to think deeply and critically about academics, teaches debate, Greek and Latin roots of words to ensure command of the English language. For more information about Elan Academy or to enroll, you can visit the school’s website at elanacademy.org.