Melanie Askew loves words and language. The founder and leader of Élan Academy in New Orleans glows when discussing the importance of language education, especially amongst younger learners.
Élan Academy is a K-8 public school currently enrolling Kindergarten through second grade students. Language is a main focus of the school, named to capture the lively, enthusiastic spirit that Melanie’s team works to foster, with a nod to New Orleans heritage. Here, Melanie wants her students to feel excited and engaged in learning.
As the only sibling of seven to attend and graduate from college, Melanie has long been aware of the inequities present in our education system. A system that, in Melanie’s opinion, often makes the choices for students, rather than presenting them with opportunities. “When I graduated from college and my siblings were cheering for me, it was bittersweet knowing that they hadn’t had that moment,” she recalls. “I decided to figure out how to create those opportunities for everyone.” For her, this imbalance began when she was able to attend a private school that provided her with an excellent education and got her off to a strong start. Following her walk across the stage at Vanderbilt, she began to think about a place of learning full of opportunities for students who might not otherwise have them.
Melanie’s college and master’s degrees afforded her career options previously unknown to her family. Yet, six months into a lucrative career outside of education, she could not ignore her vision. She quit her job and joined Teach For America. In her first two years as a Corps member she served as a founding first grade teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, before moving into a Teacher Leadership Coach position. TFA eventually brought her to St. Louis, Missouri, where she served as a Manager for Teacher Leadership Development.
It was at her first position in Memphis, however, that she discovered the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship. At Cornerstone Preparatory Academy, a charter led by someone who had trained with BES, she “started seeing what was possible for students based on the strategies they were using.” She began thinking about how she would use these techniques in her own school, to recreate a positive learning environment fueled by her own ideas.
Upon beginning The Fellowship in the summer of 2017, Melanie relocated to New Orleans, where she promptly fell in love with the city, its people, and their culture. It was a place where she wanted “to put down roots” and she set to work learning about what the community wanted from a school. It became clear early on that many residents longed for the classical education of their past: a school with a strong Latin curriculum and a basis in the classics.
Élan fills this niche, but with a forward-thinking twist. Students read the classics, but don’t stop at Homer. The leadership team has incorporated the “new classics”, as Melanie describes them, with work from Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. Encouraging students to be bilingual is not limited to Latin, or the French or Spanish they will also learn. Students at Élan also learn to code, developing a solid, alternative language skill that will help them compete in the global marketplace.
The school balances its laser focus on curriculum with a dose of flexibility. Literacy blocks sprinkled throughout the week allow teachers to home in on and assess each student’s progress, providing targeted instruction unique to every skill level. This means that a second grader reading below grade level and a kindergartner reading above grade level receive the personalized attention they need to advance.
When asked about her favorite part of teaching, Melanie highlights student growth. “It was great to see growth,” she says. “I remember one student coming in below grade level in kindergarten, who left on a third-grade reading level. I just thought ‘Look what is possible because of the structure and higher expectations put in place.’ It really moved him to grow tremendously.”
Unsurprisingly, Melanie is excited about the school’s upcoming assessments. Growth and progress has defined Melanie’s teaching career, and embeds itself into the culture of Élan Academy. The team at Élan follow a regular schedule of STEP and the NWEA Map assessments. Using these results, Melanie looks forward to reviewing how much progress has been made over the past five weeks, as well as understanding where and how to adjust curriculum to better suit the needs of her students. The Élan team will use this past data to move confidently into the future.
At the moment, Élan’s biggest hurdle is enrollment. As Melanie explains, New Orleans is unique “like no other city, as we are nearly 100 percent charter.” While this is a boon to someone looking to open a charter school, it creates a high level of competition. “Parents have a variety of choice and excess seats available across the city. We have worked to differentiate ourselves and encourage our families to spread the word. As a new school, you do not have a reputation to stand on. All you can provide is the vision, your passion, and opportunities for families to have input.”
The parents at Élan Academy are excited about what the school brings to the education landscape. Melanie describes a mother who is “such an advocate” for Élan, connecting with fellow parents and bringing in new families and their students. A father, a coder by trade, “was sold when we told him we were teaching coding,” and is excited for the opportunity for his children to learn this skill at school. He enthusiastically shares resources, be it books, websites, or his own time.
“We have a really good group of parents,” Melanie says. “They bring us ideas,” she elaborates, describing the family kick-off event coming up in one month’s time, spearheaded by parents. When she talks about the school’s community, her admiration and appreciation is evident: “They get to feel like they are a part of this too, because there is no Élan without our parents.”
Another source of support, says Melanie, is her BES network. In addition to the “stellar individuals” from her Fellowship cohort, her instructor Sue Walsh (“What would Sue say If she walked into this classroom right now?”), and her Follow On Support coach Jill Dunchick, Melanie praises the efforts and advice of two Fellows that came before her, with whom she talks often: Charlie Friedman of Nashville Classical and Lagra Newman of Purpose Preparatory Academy. Melanie’s BES interview took place at Purpose Preparatory Academy, a school that she describes as “truly inspiring.” Her other mentor, Charlie, advises her regularly of educating through a classical model. It is a great source of knowledge and comfort, says Melanie, “When you know someone will pick up the phone for you as busy they are.” Both school leaders are invaluable sources of expertise, from current issues to next steps.
“Melanie is a fierce, determined, strong, and humble human being,” says Jill. “She works tirelessly on behalf of her students and deeply owns the future of each child she has the opportunity to educate. It has been an honor and a joy to work with Melanie as she demands excellence in all she does, knowing she is serving as a model of what is possible with an excellent education to her students and her team members. She hired a team of like-minded individuals who love learning and are 100% mission driven. Élan is off to a strong start and I am excited to see what the first round of assessments shows for student growth!”
By 2023, Melanie envisions the inaugural graduation of their eighth-grade class, currently in second grade, heading into the real world armed with an excellent education. Through Latin they will understand how words are formed and language is created, and will improve their vocabulary. With a strong understanding of Spanish or French, they will be en route to becoming bilingual. Equipped with coding skills, they will emerge as future-ready citizens, ready to contribute to the increasingly digital landscape. They will graduate as leaders, concerned about and engaged in their community.
Élan would not exist today without a leader who began with, and remains committed to, a crystal clear vision. “People are going to push it- and the pushing of your vision never stops,” Melanie says. “It doesn’t stop after you get the charter, it doesn’t stop after your doors open. You have to be so clear in your idea of success, and hold tight to that.” Élan intends to instill the same clarity and determination in its students. The school aims to raise the bar not only for its students, but for Louisiana as a whole, creating a generation of learners in New Orleans who don’t just hope for college, but expect it.