New Orleans restructured its schools system after Hurricane Katrina. That’s meant rebuilding a sense of community and school spirit through new traditions. One young woman dedicated her efforts to create a legacy by becoming her high school’s first student mascot.
At a basketball pep rally sophomore Kelly Calderon wore blue spandex, a teal scrap of fabric as a mask, and sandwiched herself between two painted nautilus shells. It was her inaugural performance as the first-ever student mascot for New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, known as Sci High by students and faculty.
Although she felt nervous, Kelly believed she needed to give her classmates a boost of school spirit.
"Without it, it feels like you’re just going through phases while you’re in high school," Calderon says.
Calderon got the idea at a cheerleading practice, where she went to support her sister Alexis, a senior at Sci High. One of the cheerleaders offhandedly suggested Kelly Calderon become the mascot. The position had been sporadically filled by a faculty member.
"My sister and I made the costume together," Calderon says. "We made a super nautilus, a shell with perfect chambers."
The girls made two flat shell signs, one for the front and one for the back. As excited as Calderon was at first, she felt some hesitation in the weeks leading up to the big pep rally. In middle school, only two years earlier, she didn’t have a lot of friends and got bullied. Her sister also worried about the school’s response.
"Me and Kelly was afraid like how people were going to respond to it," says Alexis Calderon. "There’s always like the idea in the back of her mind that someone’s going to say something about that she’s dressed up like that."
Her sister Kelly ultimately decided to just let go and have fun with it. She wanted to add to her school’s legacy. Calderon's silver, glittery cape whipped around her as she ran in front of her peers at the Sci High pep rally. She jumped in the air and kicked up her legs.
"I think they were really excited to see, like, 'Oh my God look at that we have a mascot and it’s a real high school,' because our school is pretty small," Calderon says.
Founded in 1993, Sci High started as a half-day mathematics and science center. Full-day classes started right after Katrina but building extra-curriculars has been slow — a stark contrast to their next door neighbor Lusher Charter. Principal of Student Culture Chana Benenson says the school had a symbol but not many places to show it.
"The nautilus has always been the school’s mascot, but without any sports teams in the pre-Katrina world it was as necessary of an emblem," says Benenson.
Sci High is known for enrolling students that have been expelled from other schools, so attention turns mostly to academics. But Tutor and Enrichment Coordinator Gregory Wilson believes other activities are important as well.
"For kids to just come to school and just do academics, it’s really going to be a hindrance and really bring them down and slow down a period of time that I think should be fun," says Wilson.
After the pep rally, where Kelly Calderon was by far the most talked about star, students filled two school buses to Sci High’s first “home game.” The school doesn’t have its own gym, so they traveled about 25 minutes to Algiers. Head coach Alvin Batiste III says Kelly Calderon pumped up the crowd.
"It was actually probably the biggest crowd they’ve ever had attend the game," he says. "I enjoyed having the mascot around combined with the dance team and the cheerleaders. It definitely took our energy level up."
At half-time Calderon performed with the cheerleaders to a mix that included the ultimate high school jam “Mickey.” Calderon and the cheerleaders watched Sci High win with a final score of 54-33. Senior Kedrion Baker celebrated with her classmates.
"We never had a student mascot," Baker says, "so it was like really cool to see somebody that you just see around school be a mascot and support the school and support the team. And, it got everybody really excited."
Calderon worked with the dance team to improve her routine throughout the season. She likes to think her role as mascot helps the school feel like home.
"Our student body has something to laugh about and to see at games to show school spirit," she says.
Her sister Alexis says Kelly inspires peers to take risks.
"You see Kelly coming out of her shell and doing things it’s like hey we can really do stuff at this school there’s like no reason not to do anything," she says.
For next year the Sci High art club is making Kelly a nautilus costume with a lot of glitter.
Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries, Entergy and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Tyler Gillespie originally reported this story for the UNO Driftwood.