Has Special Education Changed in New Orleans? By Danielle Dreilinger, The Times-Picayune

The Times-Picayune recently published a series of articles about the state of public education in New Orleans. Collegiate Academies was spotlighted in several of the pieces. Click here to see the full list of articles, and read below for two stories about work that is being piloted at Collegiate Academies’ three schools.

One Class Now

To an outsider, the Essential Skills class at Sci Academy might look as easy as an afternoon at home in the kitchen. But intervention director Kelsey Lambrecht said it was tough for these students, who all have severe and intellectual developmental disabilities.

Each had a carefully constructed list of skills to develop. For one student, progress meant keeping his eyes on what others were doing and briefly holding a measuring cup. He, like the others, is called a “scholar” like anyone else.

Among the cooks was De’Vantee Alexis, 17. When Lambrecht met him five years ago, he was unpredictable, active and sometimes violent. He ran up and down the hallways. He’d kick a classmate out of nowhere.

But “all he needed was some consistency and some tasks on his level,” she said.

Alexis today is upbeat in a red University of Wisconsin hoodie. After he got to Sci, “school made me feel happy,” he said. He enjoyed “doing all my work and my math and my reading.”

Outside of school, he helps out at his church and mows lawns. He likes basketball and NASCAR. After Sci, he said, “I’d like to go to Delgado,” in its program for special-needs students. “I like to be getting a job. I like to be mowing the lawn.”

Sci senior Oanh Nguyen, who helps out in the Essential Skills class, said it made a key difference in basic teenage communication. At first, when one student texted her, “I honestly couldn’t understand him, what he was trying to tell me,” she said. Months later, the two text back and forth and understand each other just fine.

Essential Skills is just one of the specialized programs that have sprung up in recent years. The ReNEW charter network has a class for students with major behavioral and emotional needs. There are programs at Sci’s sibling schools in the Collegiate network and at KIPP McDonogh 15, and both will expand in the fall. Several programs are starting in the fall.

Cypress Academy, a new charter, has a focus on students with dyslexia. The Recovery system will unveil its therapeutic center for students in psychiatric crisis: Twenty students at a time will receive medical support and therapies as they stabilize. The city hasn’t had anything like it since the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital closed in 2009.

These options haven’t come without criticism. “It’s segregating kids with disabilities,” parent advocate Karran Harper Royal said, “and letting the charter schools off the hook.”

Andrea Bond, Collegiate’s director of scholar support, disagreed. At first, after the storm, inclusion in regular classes was the only option. Now there’s a continuum with options for students at all points, she said. For example, Collegiate also has a program for students who are a little less impaired than the Essential Skills participants — they work at the level of 7- to 10-year-olds and are not on a traditional diploma track.

“I see a city coming together” to serve these students, she said.

After Graduation

But is there life after high school for students with disabilities? That might be the next frontier for New Orleans teachers.

Parent advocate Karran Harper Royal thought families too often accepted the minimum. She fought for her younger son to stay at Lusher Charter and take the same tests as typical students, so he could graduate with a diploma that would get him somewhere.

The state has been working to recognize the progress of students with severe special needs, said Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council. But as it stands, “our accountability system does not give schools adequate credit for serving kids” with significant disabilities, “and we want that to change.”

Fleming also thought students “need to have more actual work experience when they leave school,” beyond the typical industries such as food service.

Sci Academy senior Oanh Nguyen helps out in the school’s Essential Skills program for students with severe disabilities, and wrote her capstone paper on the question of what happens after high school. “It’s hard for them to find jobs,” she said.

Students are entitled to services until they are 22, but Nguyen found few options. Essential Skills student De’Vantee Alexis liked a particular program at Delgado; Nguyen said it should be maintained and expanded. Instead, it is not taking new students this fall due to uncertainty about funding, college spokesman Tony Cook said.

Nguyen concluded that students with disabilities should start thinking about their future “as soon as they can so they can have less struggle when they get older. And parents should be involved,” she said.

Sci High and Cohen College Prep are starting programs this fall for students with significant disabilities that focus on transition to adulthood.

And Sci Academy is stepping into the breach. This summer, the school launches Opportunities Academy for severely disabled students whose classmates have graduated. They will work on job and life skills, and ways to be more independent. Alexis will be in its founding class.

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