A New Principal Taps Life Experience To Serve More Students

Jan 30, 2017

New Orleans kids show up to school having experienced trauma at rates several times higher than the national average. For the series “Kids, Trauma and New Orleans Schools” WWNO’s Eve Troeh and Mallory Falk spent time at one school making changes to account for high levels of trauma: Crocker College Prep. Eve Troeh shares this profile of Nicole Boykins, the school's new principal.

It’s the first day of school at Crocker. After a huddle with her staff, Principal Nicole Boykins says it’s time to open the doors. Hundreds of kids start to stream into the building, with fresh uniforms, new shoes and bright hair bows. It's a modern school with lots of windows and a big playground, newly built since Katrina. Nicole wears a tailored black dress and heels, long hair around her shoulders.

She has a big smile and says the name of almost every student who walks toward her. Boykins is petite. She has to reach up to pat the shoulders of some teenagers. Then she bends down for big hugs from kindergartners.

She started as a first grade teacher at Crocker, and was one of the few teachers kept on when the school was closed by the Recovery School District for low performance, then taken over in 2013 by New Orleans College Prep charter network. Now, she’s in charge of about 550 or so pre-K through eighth grade students.

Expectations are high. In the gym, Crocker’s Assistant Principal, Rachel Sherman, and Dean of Students and Families, Jamar Fisher, gather the sixth, seventh and eighth graders. After detailing the schools systems and rules, Sherman has the older students yell what year they will graduate and go on to higher education.

Principal Nicole Boykins greets student on the first day of school at Crocker College Prep.
Credit Eve Troeh

“Seventh grade, What year are you going to college?"

“We’re going to college in the year 2022!”

“What year?”

“2022!”

Their principal’s expectations come down to one word: great. It’s a word that peppers Nicole Boykins’ speech, even in brief interactions with students and staff.

“Make sure you’re great.”

“Be great.”

“Be great. Be your absolute best.”

Crocker has a new definition of what it means to be a ‘great’ school.

It’s one of five New Orleans charter schools in a collective to become more trauma-informed. That’s in partnership with agencies like the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans and the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. It means Crocker aims to account for the social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students who enroll, and takes into account how the lives they live outside of school affect their learning.

Boykins was hand-picked by Crocker’s last principal, Amanda Aiken. One of the factors was her ability to continue Crocker’s second year of the trauma-informed effort. When the two women are in a room together, they crackle with energy. Boykins says she never expected to have the job title ‘principal.’ But Aiken says she’s been preparing Boykins for the role.

“These are her kids, this is her city,” says Aiken. “So what better person to lead the school than a person who sees herself in our kids?”

Since Katrina, it’s become more rare for school leaders to be from New Orleans, a product of New Orleans public schools. No one talked to Nicole Boykins about being ‘great’ academically or going to college when she was in elementary school. She grew up in a neighborhood called Hollygrove, an area known for patches of violent crime.

“Being from New Orleans, I’ve experienced a certain level of trauma,” says Boykins, “whether in my own home or outside the door.” She credits coping skills learned at an early age with her success in school, and her ability to take on her new job. “Nothing really rattles me.”

Boykins' mother came to New Orleans from Japan, took a job doing factory work, and married her dad, a mechanic. She’s the middle child, with an older brother and a younger one. Boykins grew up poor, helping translate things into English for her mom, and tempering a contentious relationship between her dad and brothers. In her corner of Hollygrove, police lights often flashed outside.

Boykins got into a magnet school for junior high and high school. She got into college at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, became the first in her family to earn a degree, and went on to Master’s in Education at Xavier. She can’t really tell you how she did it, other than saying she kept her head down and worked hard.

As principal at Crocker, though, she has had to get specific about what coping skills are, how to foster them in her students, and what each child needs day by day.

It’s a Wednesday morning and Principal Boykins is posted up on the second floor hallway at Crocker. The school has some staff out, so Boykins fills in on hall duty. Every few seconds she calls to kids to tuck in shirts, to stop running.

A teacher walks up with third grader. The student is fuming.

“Shane, what’s up?” Boykins asks.

A long pause. “I don’t wanna be in class,” he mumbles.

“So what would you like to do? You want Mr. Fisher? You want to go to skill center?"

(Skill center is a new development of the trauma-informed program. It's similar to detention, but students work on something specific rather than menial tasks or sitting idle.)

He shrugs. The teacher leaves, while Shane stays with Nicole. Social worker Rochelle Gauthier is there in the hallway, too.

Gauthier reminds the boy of some recent success in school. “We just had a great outing on Friday. We got to go to the basketball game and do all that because you had two good days.”

The encouragement doesn’t work. Shane runs into the stairwell. Boykins goes after him. She wrangles him upstairs, finds an empty office, and gets him inside. He bangs on the door. Boykins gets on a school walkie talking, and asks for Dean Fisher to assist with Shane.

“Shane has been struggling,” she says. She describes a meeting just days before between herself, a social worker, a student dean, and Shane’s mom.

“Mom thinks Shane is struggling because dad was just sentenced [to prison for] to 20 years,” Boykins says. “Dad was very active." While in jail in New Orleans awaiting sentencing, Shane could visit his father. But the sentencing meant he was transferred to a prison many hours' drive away, near the Arkansas border. "And now we’re struggling significantly,” Boykins says.

Principal Boykins shares a light moment with teacher Shawn Castrillo.
Credit Clarence Williams

To fully embrace all students and their families takes a lot of work. Three or four staff members might tag team to help one troubled student, on any given day.

“It’s very emotionally taxing for you to watch a third grader explode for 30 min of rage,” Boykins says. “You need to tap out it becomes overwhelming for an adult.”

Boykins might spend half her work day dealing with behavior issues. Plus, she still has to keep track of everything else: staffing, lunch, busses, keeping grades and test scores rising. Boykins and Aiken, who’s now Director of all New Orleans College Prep schools, must keep academic performance up, while also keeping the most challenging students learning, instead of suspending them.

“Crocker has the lowest suspension this year that it’s had,” says Aiken. “Attendance rates are great. So suspension and attendance are how I measure are we really doing this trauma-informed work.”

The approach means re-thinking school discipline.

“A lot of times teachers want students punished because they say you’ve wronged me as a teacher,” says Boykins. “But remove yourself from the situation and think about what that student needs. Even the students who give teachers the most grief want to be here.”

She describes a student who walked from Elysian Fields Ave. to get to Crocker, a walk of several miles. He’s 15 years old, a seventh grader when other kids his age are in high school. It’s often difficult to keep him in class.

“I could give him a 30-minute lunch detention,” says Boykins, “But do you really think that’s going to remedy what his issues are?”

“He walked miles to get here. Why?”

Boykins keeps in mind the disproportionate number of black males in New Orleans who get incarcerated. On her bulletin board, next to inspirational quotes and a picture of her own young son, she also keeps a letter from her brother.

It’s post-marked as inmate mail from Bossier Correctional Facility. Her brother went to jail about a year ago. The letter included a list of strict regulations at the prison. Boykins reads it to students, along with excerpts from the letter.

“’As for me I’m hanging in there,’” she recites from the page. “’This place where I’m at is so intense. It’s set up so you give up but I can’t let them get me.’”

Back in the hallway, groups of students quietly change classes. Some brag to Principal Boykins about their high test scores, or good grades. Then, another student who needs help.

Lester, a four-year-old in pre-K, upturned the tables during art time. Paint everywhere. He’s covered in green. Boykins leans in.

“Can you talk to me? Why’d you flip the classroom? Were you angry?”

He doesn’t answer.

“You almost look like Ninja Turtle but Ninja Turtles don’t flip classrooms.”

The boy squeals with delight.

This is strategy. Lester loves Ninja Turtles. He came to Crocker, at age four, with diagnosed special needs like delayed verbal development. He has frequent outbursts. Boykins found some Ninja Turtle costumes on sale. When Lester has a good week, she and social worker Osha Sempel put them on, and celebrate. The lure of that can get him to calm down.

“Clean up and then we can have that Ninja Turtle party,” Boykins promises, then sings the cartoon theme song, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…” and she and the other staffers gathered around Lester strike martial arts poses.

Nicole never imagined dressing up like a Ninja Turtle would be part of her job as principal. But given all the skills it takes to meet the needs of every one of her students, ninja is a role that makes sense.

“Kids, Trauma and New Orleans Schools” was produced with support from the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Support for education reporting at WWNO comes from Entergy.

Music in this story: "Evenhanded," "Sepia," and "Floating in Space" by Podington Bear.