Andrewneka Youngblood had been “put out” of the charter school she was attending, so her mother brought the 12-year-old to the brand-new Welcome School in this city to find another school.
Within two hours, two teachers tested Andrewneka’s reading and math skills, and a placement specialist enrolled her at Gregory Elementary School, a pre-K through 8th grade campus that is part of the state-run Recovery School District.
Her reading was somewhat below grade level; she stumbled on words such as “suburban” and “helicopter,” according to teacher Bryant Statham, who tested her. After consulting with math teacher Gertrude Phillips, the two decided Andrewneka should be placed in 6th grade.
“She will fit right in at Gregory,” Mr. Statham said.
Her mother, Tracy Youngblood, was relieved. “The charter school was too far from my house, and I didn’t always have transportation for her, so they put her out,” she said. “Gregory is much closer to where we stay now.”
Like so many families returning to New Orleans, Ms. Youngblood had been confused by the vastly altered system of public schools when she came home last May from Houston and chose New Orleans College Prep, a charter school, for Andrewneka because her daughter had a friend enrolled there.
Ms. Youngblood, who said she dropped out of school and does not read and write well, hopes that Andrewneka will do better at her new school. “She won’t have to miss because of transportation anymore,” the mother said.
Students Placed Fast
The RSD opened the Welcome School on Nov. 5 in a large, beige building in an industrial section of central New Orleans that overlooks Interstate 10.
Conceived as a program to offer students in 6th through 12th grades support services and placement in one of the 34 schools that the RSD is operating this school year, the school handled roughly 100 students in its first eight days. Some of them had just returned to the city, more than two years after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.
At least one civil rights leader criticized the concept of the school, predicting that it would likely become a “warehouse school” for the most troubled students. But, so far, that has not been the case.
Staffed with two full-time teachers, a social worker, a half-dozen placement specialists, a registration coordinator, and two administrators, the Welcome School is one of several initiatives that RSD Superintendent Paul G. Vallas committed to shortly after taking the helm in July.
Last school year, under Mr. Vallas’ predecessor, the RSD put roughly 300 children on a waiting list for four weeks as officials scrambled to open more schools. The situation became a focal point of outrage in the community and a public relations problem for the state-run district, which took over nearly all New Orleans public schools after the hurricane.
Mr. Vallas, a veteran urban schools chief, said the Welcome School would, in part, help prevent a repeat of that situation and would also provide a transitional setting for many students who missed weeks, months, or, in some cases, two years of school since Katrina hit. The Welcome School includes a full-service cafeteria that provides breakfast and lunch to the children who come to enroll, and the social worker is able to refer parents to other public agencies for social services outside the school district.
“The students get seen by teachers here and a social worker, and others of us who can then give the school staff where they enroll a heads-up on what is coming to them,” said Larnette Smith, one of two RSD administrators who oversee the Welcome School. “It helps the students and it helps the principal and teachers.”
Time for Transition
Mr. Statham, an English and special education teacher who has taught for more than 30 years in New Orleans public schools, said he and Ms. Phillips are prepared to teach students should counselors not be able to place them right away in a regular RSD school. Their modern classroom, filled with new desks and equipped with an electronic whiteboard, sits across the hall from empty classrooms and a computer lab.
As of mid-month, the numbers of students coming through the Welcome School had not been as high as what the teachers had expected, and all were enrolled in a regular RSD school within a few hours. “I actually think many of the kids could use a few days here with us to get back on track, especially those who’ve been out of school for so long,” Mr. Statham said. “Some of them just need a chance to get used to being in a classroom with a teacher again.”
The day before Andrewneka arrived, the school had registered 29 students, and one of them, an 18-year-old girl, had stood out, said Ms. Phillips, who also has more than 30 years in New Orleans’ high school classrooms.
“She had been out of school ever since the storm, and it was pretty obvious that she was way behind and angry about it,” Ms. Phillips said. “But she was able to talk to the social worker, and that seemed to help. That may have been a more difficult thing to provide her if she’d just been put into a school without coming here first.”
But how long the Welcome School will be necessary is an open question. With the enrollment in RSD schools lower than had been projected, and with the numbers of families returning to New Orleans tapering off, demand for the special school might diminish.
“We hope it stays open,” said Mr. Statham. “I think it’s a real innovative approach to deal with the challenges we’ve got here since the hurricane. Hopefully, we’ve been able to ease the anxiety of some of the kids.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.