Leafing through an old copy of the New York Times Magazine in late 2010, a familiar striped tie caught James Shecter’s eye. Shecter, then a sophomore at the Haverford School, noticed the boy in the photo wore gold in his tie – the Haverford School’s colors are maroon and gold – with a crisp blazer and khakis.
As Shecter read the accompanying article, he learned the school uniform so similar to his own was worn at Miller-McCoy Academy for Mathematics and Business, an all-boys charter school in New Orleans that opened in 2008 in response to Hurricane Katrina’s effects on the devastated city’s public school system.
Published in August 2008, the article documented the beginnings of Miller-McCoy, which when it opened only serviced the sixth and ninth grades. Shecter found himself engrossed in the story. One question, posed by one of Miller-McCoy’s principals Keith Sanders, stood out to him.
“Now we’ve been given the opportunity to be a part of the rebirth of New Orleans,” Sanders told New York Times editor Paul Tough. “How often do you get a chance to contribute to something like this?"
Shecter eventually tracked down Sanders’ and Miller-McCoy’s other principal Tiffany Hardrick and jotted their contact information on his copy of the magazine. He called them and said he wanted to help. Together, the New Orleans principals and Haverford School student began making plans for Shecter to travel to Louisiana and tutor that summer.
Before Shecter left for New Orleans, Sanders, Hardrick and 10 Miller-McCoy students traveled to Philadelphia, stopping at the Haverford School for a tour and lunch at the OK of the Haverford School’s Headmaster Joseph Cox. Shecter and his peers senior Fitz Pepper and junior Sam Bloch gave them a tour of the school, shared burgers and talked about what young men that go to an all-boys school talk about: girls and sports.
On their visit, Sanders and Hardrick told Shecter about a fundraiser: An anonymous donor said he or she would double any money raised by June 21. Shecter jumped at the opportunity to do more for Miller-McCoy.
“I wrote a really long email,” Shecter said, comparing it to a novel. “I said, ‘This is a great opportunity for us to equal the playing field in New Orleans because the education system there has kind of been a hole ever since Katrina, and it never really recovered.’ It was something that I felt so passionately about.”
By the time Shecter and his parents Howard and Lynn made their way to New Orleans two days after the deadline on June 23, Shecter had raised $8,600 through relatives and friends. He handed the check to Sanders and Hardrick and was told it was one of the most generous contributions the school had ever received.
Shecter spent a week and a half at the school, where he tutored seventh- and eighth-grade students who were on the brink of having to repeat their grades in math and history. After his tutoring sessions, Shecter ran a tennis camp, a sport he’s played since age 2.
“In the beginning, it was literally like we were speaking two different languages,” Shecter said of tutoring. “They couldn’t connect the dots. They couldn’t figure out where they were making mistakes.”
By the end of his time there, though, Shecter said a student told him, “Math isn’t my least favorite subject anymore.”
After the success of the trip, Shecter is working with the Haverford School’s Director of Service Learning Jini Loos as well as Headmaster Cox to build a stronger connection between the two schools. Cox has already agreed to sponsor Miller-McCoy into the International Boys’ School Coalition. This summer, Shecter, now a junior, will return to New Orleans with a group of 20-30 of his peers to continue tutoring.
“No one has, on his own, forged the kind of relationship James has between the Haverford School and Miller-McCoy,” Cox said.
Loos will also help spearhead a learning collaboration between the schools using technologies such as Skype to study a common subject.
“Some of our issues are completely the same, but because we come from different places, our perspectives are different,” Loos said, “but we can work on things together. Global is right around the corner, and many of the issues are the same.”
Shecter’s relationship with Miller-McCoy also continues to prosper personally. He still chats with Sanders and Hardrick at least once a week via email or over the phone, and has formed friendships with students who live a time zone away.
“James is one of those people who actually cares,” Miller-McCoy senior Tamaz Lofton, 17, said from Louisiana. “He was really committed when he came here. He just wanted to help.”
Lofton will attend Louisiana State University in the fall on an academic scholarship and is part of the first-ever graduating class of Miller-McCoy. After visiting the Haverford School, he said he was amazed at what the learning environment had to offer in comparison to Miller-McCoy, which in its toddler-stage has already gained recognition for its academic programs and athletics.
“The first year we only had a few parents in the football stands,” Lofton said. “Now people are starting to care. There are neighbors cheering too.”
To read Shecter's account of his visit to Miller-McCoy in New Orleans, check out the article he wrote for his school paper, The Index.