Golden shovels and all, ground will break next Monday on a vision more than five years in the making: the 9th Ward Field of Dreams.
Set to open for the 2014 football season, the $1.85 million project will give the kids at George Washington Carver High School and the surrounding community a football field, Olympic-sized track, lighting system, and stadium seating.
Though located on the Carver campus, the state-of-the-art facilities will be open and free of charge to all schools in the city as well as the community.
While the project has expanded into a partnership between public, individual and corporate sponsors, the dream started with the arrival of New York-native Brian Bordainick at Carver in 2007. Having just graduated from the University of Georgia, Bordainick came to New Orleans at age 21 as a teacher with Teach for America.
Not long into the school year, Bordainick assumed the role of athletic director at Carver when the previous director quit, and started trying to figure out how to run the athletic program that was financially "running on fumes."
In 2008, Bordainick learned about a competitive matching NFL grant to build a new football field – worth up to $200,000. He figured that the worst-case scenario would result in raising a few thousand dollars, which would still go a long way to get basic equipment to the kids.
But the entrepreneurial-spirited Bordainick leveraged every source he could think of and won the grant – raising $200,000 in 30 days and just barely making the deadline. Locally and nationally, individuals and businesses heeded the call.
Currently Bordainick said they have approximately $1.3 million, and the fundraising effort continues. The Recovery School District, who is the design phase of building a new school at Carver, contributed $200,000 to the Field of Dreams.
But the journey to the groundbreaking has not always been an easy one.
Throughout the process there have been delays, said Norbert Rome, who serves on both the Field of Dream's board as well as on the board of the Dr. George Washington Carver Charter School Association, a community-based group that applied multiple times to charter Carver before watching it handed over to Collegiate Academies in 2012.
Collegiate Academies now operates three high schools: Sci Academy in eastern New Orleans, G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy, and G.W. Carver Preparatory Academy.
While all parties have worked collectively toward the Field of Dreams, Rome and the Carver Charter Association have had a tense history with the RSD and the decision to give the school to Collegiate. Before that, the Association fought the RSD on the proposed closure of the school.
The clash between community and charter management operators is not unique to Carver, but Rome said that at least the Carver community has a place at the table with Collegiate. There has been give and take, he said, and the community has fought to participate in every decision they can.
As Collegiate Academies moved in, Rome said there were certain things the association would not give up.
The Carver name, for instance, was not something they would concede, Rome said. And they were able to convince the administrators who took over the upper grades being phased out not to force the students to walk on a straight line of tape as is common in many of the "no excuses" model charter schools that have infiltrated the city.
Rome contrasted the interaction – though often a firefight – with his alma mater, Alcee Fortier, where "Nobody fought – they just came and took the school and nobody said anything."
At least at Carver, there have been a lot of discussions, Rome said.
Over the past eight years of "reform" in New Orleans, Bordainick said that he has observed that for outside charter operators, battling out disputes with an engaged community is the much harder path to take.
The Field of Dreams process has required all parties to be engaged and to find common ground amid disagreement.
"You can't put a bubble around a school and say 'We know best,' and that anyone who argues with you is wrong," Bordainick said.
While he said he sees tremendous progress in many aspects of education, the "holy grail" question of education reform remains elusive. That question, said Bordainick, is "If you have kids, where would you send them to school?" Bordainick said he is still waiting for the day when the majority of policy makers and charter operators are advocating for and running the same schools where they send their own children.
"You can't have a good education system if it's not a part of the community," Rome said, and that includes athletics.
Rome said that one of the biggest challenges of turning the field from dream to reality was just getting everyone on the same page regarding the construction of the new school. Rome said the two separate projects ultimately came together with a plan in which ideally both will be completed within the next few years.
Bordainick said there were obstacles and setbacks he never could have imagined, largely related to permitting and construction issues. Now, he said he is ready to see the field laid down and "get the hell out of the way." It will be a resounding relief to see the kids on the field, Bordainick said. "I just want it to be there for them."
There's still a lot of work to be done, Rome said, but the prospect of what the Field of Dreams will bring to the entire community is an exciting one.
And the impact goes far beyond sports, Bordainick said.
According to the 9th Ward Field of Dreams website:
"Our mission is to give New Orleans' youths a place to learn life's lessons and play out their dreams, so that they may: Attain educational success; Build a strong character and healthy lifestyle; Live and play in a welcoming environment, unafraid of crime; And embrace the idea that people crazy enough to believe in their own power can overcome any challenge."
This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.