School Choice & Charters

How New Orleans’ Charter Schools Are Helping Their Graduates Through College

By Arianna Prothero — March 31, 2016 6 min read
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There’s skepticism that New Orleans’ system of almost all charter schools provides a model that can be imported wholesale to other states. But what about specific policies and lessons? In this part of an occasional series, Charters & Choice explores how New Orleans has tackled issues arising from all-out school choice and what other cities and states can learn from the Crescent City’s experiences.

Many charter schools set up shop in low-income, urban areas with the aim of propelling classes of kids who have historically struggled to finish high school—let alone go to college—into higher education.

But even among those students who make it to college, national statistics paint a grim picture: Only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college-goers graduate in six years, according to the Pell Institute.

Despite naming homerooms after universities and hanging college pennants in the hallways, as is popular in many charter schools, their alumni still face a range of issues once they reach college, from cultural to academic.

In New Orleans, some schools are experimenting with ways to support their alumni once they leave.

“To be quite honest, my first semester was rough,” says J’Remi Barnes, a 2015 graduate of Sci Academy in New Orleans, who is currently a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa. “At Sci, they make sure you have the material down before you leave class, and if you don’t have it, they make you go to a tutoring session. Here, it’s on you.”

And, he adds: “Going from crawfish to corn, that’s not totally ideal.”

The New Orleans public education system, which is mostly made up of low-income black students, was completely overhauled ten years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Today, almost every public school in the city is a charter school.

This unorthodox system has led to improved test results, according to Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance, but that doesn’t guarantee students will be successful in a postsecondary education.

Ninety-eight percent of students who attend one of Collegiate Academies’ three schools, which includes Sci Academy, are accepted into college, according to the network. But many of its alumni drop out, especially between their first and second years in college.

In response, Collegiate Academies is among a few charter networks and schools in New Orleans that have launched concerted efforts, that include special staff and classes, to help their alumni navigate college.

“A very large percentage of our students are first-generation college students,” says Lauren Katz, the director of college completion for the network, which includes Sci Academy. “They will often fall back on us when these issues come up because a lot of our students don’t have people in their lives who can provide information on what it’s like to be a college student.”

Today, J’Remi Barnes is among around half of Collegiate Academies alumni who started college and are still attending. Although that number is growing and higher than the national average, Katz says it’s not good enough.

No Excuses and College Persistence

Like many charter schools characterized as “college prep” or “no excuses,” Sci Academy places a heavy emphasis on getting into college.

These types of schools also have strict rules for behavior: Students must wear uniforms, follow the teacher with their eyes at all times, and walk along taped lines when changing classes, to name a few common examples.

Such schools have been criticized for these policies not only because they can lead to ballooning suspension rates, but also because, critics charge, they may make the transition to the independent life of a college student more difficult.

“We’re definitely working to make that less of an issue,” says Lauren Katz. “There is always some sort of college transition. What we try to do is gradually instill more independence and leadership so that when they go to college they are more prepared.”

All seniors at Sci Academy are now required to take a special course focused on building skills such as good study habits and financial literacy. Staff show students how to calculate their GPA to see if they’re at risk of losing their scholarship, while helping students fill out housing and financial aid forms.

As part of her job, Katz also visits Collegiate Academy graduates on their college campuses to check in on them and refine the network’s college prep programing back in New Orleans.

“I had a few students talk about how, in their college math classes, their professors will just run through a few practice problems instead of explaining the concept,” Katz says. “So, I talked to the head of our math department, and then our senior-year math teacher started incorporating that into her classroom.”

New Orleans College Prep is another small, local charter school network with a high college acceptance rate, but only a 50 percent persistence rate, that has created an alumni director position to act as a surrogate helicopter parent for its graduates.

The school also helps students cover expenses such as books, winter coats, or even plane tickets home, seemingly small challenges that can derail some students.

“Let’s say mom is sick,” Rahel Wondwossen, the principal of one of the network’s schools, Cohen College Prep, explained to me last year for Education Week‘s series on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. “They buy a one-way ticket, and now, they don’t have the other $150 or whatever to get home, and so they miss the rest of the semester, they get dropped from their financial aid. A lot of the barriers for our kids are not these huge expenses.”

Along with these network-based efforts, a couple of new organizations, including one started by New Orleans College Prep’s alumni director, are launching to help coach New Orleans’ low-income students through their college careers.

But, with all that said...

“They can’t teach you to not be homesick”

That’s what J’Remi Barnes told me when I interviewed him last year as he prepared to leave for college. He said that homesickness was a large part of why his older brother dropped out of Middlebury College in Vermont and moved back to New Orleans, leaving behind a scholarship.

Barnes is attending Grinnell College on a Posse Scholarship, a nationwide program that groups scholarship recipients into cohorts from the same city and sends them to college together.

Barnes said his posse has helped him adjust to life at a small, Midwestern, private liberal arts school.

“It’s a culture shock,” says Barnes. “I’m coming from New Orleans where it’s majority black, most of the community I’ve seen and interacted with is black, and then you come to Grinnell, and it’s just different,” said Barnes. “Having my posse here ... I was never alone, even when I was struggling with my schoolwork, I could lean on my posse.”

But, Barnes says, he doesn’t think his situation is all that unique.

“From what my advisor said, he said everyone struggles in that first semester, so I shouldn’t worry about it too much. So, I’m guessing it happens to just about everyone.”

Other articles in this series:

Related Stories:

Photo: J’Remi Barnes, a senior at Sci Academy, works on his capstone project with his teacher, Spencer Sherman. —Swikar Patel/Education Week-file

Video: Students at Cohen College Prep celebrate getting into college during the school’s Declaration Day. —Swikar Patel/Education Week-file

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.