In 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina, Joey LaRoche returned to his native New Orleans to teach math.

Through Teach for America, he was assigned to teach in a charter school. After Katrina, the state legislature had wrested control of New Orleans’s public schools from the local school board and turned most of the schools into charters. These new schools needed to address the city’s abysmal test scores and graduation rates, so they put more resources into academics and college preparation. Many schools cut extracurricular activities, including football.

Test scores and graduation rates went up, but thousands of mostly black teachers were dismissed, and thousands of students were suspended or expelled due to zero-tolerance discipline policies. Relations between the schools and the community suffered.

Now, in an effort to mend fences and to provide students with a more well-rounded education, some schools are bringing football back. LaRoche, now principal at KIPP Renaissance High School, is among those leading the charge. He sees football as a piece of New Orleans culture that shouldn’t be sacrificed.

“There are people who got a really great education in New Orleans public schools prior to Katrina, and they also had things like football, band, arts programs that supported their whole experience,” La Roche says.

The journalist Emmanuel Felton recently wrote about the return of football to New Orleans schools for The Hechinger Report.  

“It was interesting to see this school pick up a game that, in some circles, is sort of considered antithetical to college-going culture,” he says. “There’s this risk that football takes over.”

One principal told Felton she cut some tutoring and college-prep programs to make room for football in her budget. LaRoche says giving students a sense of identity within their school requires more than just achieving high test scores. And football does that.

“It’s totally worth it for the sense of pride and culture it brings to the school,” LaRoche says. “It makes our academic work a lot easier to do when students, families, teachers want to be in the building doing this work that is very hard, when they have something to look forward to outside of class work and academics.”

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The Educate podcast is produced by APM Reports in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.