Amid critical report, educators at Louisiana's alternative schools aid 'tough students that need a lot of attention'

Monday, 13 November 2017, 09:58:06 AM. In the rugged world of alternative schools, overage students saddled with academic and behavioral problems are one step away from the streets.

In the rugged world of alternative schools, overage students saddled with academic and behavioral problems are one step away from the streets.

"I think we have some tough kids who need a lot of attention," said Elizabeth Ostberg, the Harvard-educated principal of the NET Charter High School, Gentilly campus.

A state report last month said Louisiana's roughly three dozen alternative schools and 139 programs are riddled with problems and often fail to help the 18,000 students who use them.

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But most taxpayers barely have a clue about the schools, which until recently sparked little attention in public education circles.

These are the kids who dropped out or got kicked out of traditional schools, usually from busted families and sometimes with babies of their own and little hope of catching up.

On any given day, three in 10 youngsters are absent from Ostberg's newly opened school on Franklin Avenue in New Orleans.

Ostberg said some of the absences are due to "not having child care, mental health issues, housing instability, taking care of family, working.

"And because they are so far behind academically, if you are not here 100 percent of the time, it is hard for you to make progress."

Showing up for classes is just one of a staggering array of issues for students and educators.

At the NET Charter in Gentilly, and its older sister school in Central City, around 1 in 5 students is pregnant, a parent or a veteran of the criminal justice system. In the past six years, a staggering 12 students from the Central City campus were killed, away from school.

"This city is an incredibly dangerous place for students," said Ostberg, who is executive director of both schools and their founder.

Around 90 percent are overage and typically arrive at NET reading on a middle-school level.

"Sometimes 50 percent of our students are considered homeless," Ostberg said.

"Which means they are not staying with families. They are bouncing around, friends, Covenant house, those types of things.

"It doesn't mean they don't have people that love them. But they are not in a stable situation."

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The school is grounded on simple concepts: small classes, individual learning plans and connecting with at least one adult in the building. Studies show that those concepts dramatically boost chances for graduating.

The Gentilly school is housed in a nondescript building that used to serve as an athletic office for the University of New Orleans.

One day last week, Colleen Cameron's class was doing yoga. Mary Bamburg's English class was studying a novel by Scott Westerfeld, writer of "coming of age" themes for young adults.

Asked what she would tell outsiders about the school, Bamburg said, "It is probably not what you think.

"It is about affording more opportunity than a traditional school could provide."

School officials tout their internship program, which allows students to get real-world experience working at the zoo, beauty salons and design studios.

The NET's roughly 25 percent dropout rate is five times the rate in traditional schools.

About 175 students ages 15-21 attend the Gentilly school, which includes grades 9-12.

Some parents interact with school officials daily. Others only show up on graduation day.

Students usually need a few years to finish high school, but some have worked seven years for their diploma.

A success story usually means a student has moved on to a community college or landed a job.

Alternative programs, which also came under fire in the state report, offer students instruction away from their home school after multiple school violations, like fighting.

The idea, like the NET Charter High School mission, is to change a student's school setting in hopes of rehabilitation.

"Every kid wants to learn," said Ricky Chatman, a licensed social worker and director of the alternative education program in the West Feliciana Parish School District.

"But every kid can't learn in the same environment," Chatman said. "What we try to do is put them in the right environment."

Chatman's school district has about 2,200 students. Around 18 students per year enter the alternative program in St. Francisville, typically for nine weeks or so. Sally James is the teacher. Sallie Amacker is the paraprofessional.

Chatman, a former LSU linebacker standout in the 1980s', hunts for clues on how to connect with students and families.

"No relationship, no progress," he said. "I can't candy coat it. I just keep it real, and we go from there."

Workers used to focus on parents and grandparents.

"But with youth today, you have great-grandparents," Chatman said. "The great-grandparents can be 45 years of age."

Hollis Milton, superintendent of the district, said he was told when he took the job that the system's alternative education needed immediate help.

"It was not awful, but it was not rehabilitative," Milton said. 

In alternative programs, how students fare on key tests are returned to the student's home school.

Alternative schools typically get failing marks, which the NET's Central City campus got last week, when state-issued report cards came out. The state's measuring stick includes several factors, including four-year graduation rates, that all but guarantee low scores for alternative schools.

The state Department of Education uses a different accountability rubric when deciding whether a charter school should be renewed, such as growth in literacy and math and credit accumulation.

Graduation ceremonies are an emotional affair for students who have cleared all the academic, mental and social hurdles.

Teachers speak about a single student, then hand them their diploma.

"Everybody cries," Ostberg said.

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