by Ryan Whirty, Contributing Writer | January 27, 2020 | louisianaweekly.com
A recent, comprehensive, city-wide survey of educators, staffers, advocates and families reveals the multitude of challenges facing New Orleans’ public schools, including a heavy emphasis on improving the mental and behavioral health and socialization skills of students of all ages.
The 28-page report by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, titled “New Orleans School Partnership Study: What Our Students Need and How We Can Help,” states that many youth attending local public schools continue to lag behind much of the country, not just academically but also emotionally, socially and developmentally.
The report, which was released late last month, states that decades, if not centuries, of racial and socioeconomic inequities, as well as a lack of centralized focus on improvement by local officials and educators, continue to cripple student achievement and access to adequate education. However, the study also optimistically lays out numerous recommendations and possible ways forward to address the dire needs of New Orleans youth.
“The results of the survey highlight what our additional needs are and the challenges we already know our students face because of historical inequities along racial and economic lines,” New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr. told The Louisiana Weekly.
However, Lewis added that the current city school district is “a system committed on all front[s]” to improve the situation. While it certainly won’t be easy, the superintendent sees a brighter future ahead.
“We need an organization that has consensus” on a strategy, he said. “That’s the only way we feel we can all tackle this inequality. Our resolve needs to be elevated so we can get all hands on deck so we can improve outcomes for our students.”
The report identified several fundamental areas that require focus and additional resources, investment and coordination, including a larger, well-trained teaching staff; sufficient support of students with disabilities; adequate and appropriate resources for mental and behavioral health of students; and a welcoming, supportive environment for students new to the United States.
Several of those key areas involve and encompass mental and behavioral health and the socialization of students with psychological or emotional impairments and challenges, a fact that the report specifically targets for improvement and support.
“To reach educational excellence,” states the report’s executive summary, “we must also provide the full range of supports our students deserve, from social-emotional learning to mental healthcare and beyond. We know it is hard for children to focus on class when they are grieving, frightened, stressed, learning a new language and culture, or working with a disability. If our city is to make significant academic improvement, schools need additional resources and partners to help address the needs students bring to school each day.”
The GNOF and NOLA Public Schools interviewed dozens of people involved with the local public-school system – students, families, teachers, support staff, executives, and members of community groups and advocacy organizations – and gleaned several key realities when it comes to the emotional, mental and behavioral health needs of New Orleans youth in schools:
- Counseling for trauma and mental health wellness exists in the community, but there isn’t enough to help all children who need it;
- Community-based organizations exist to help students with social and emotional development, but only at a level that can reach one-third of local youth;
- Only one-fifth of NOLA Public Schools’ special-education students are able to access and benefit from community-based providers;
- Because of cost, lack of awareness or transportation challenges, many English language learners aren’t able to access the numerous ESL services in the community;
- Academic-enrichment organizations often aren’t connected with students who need the groups’ help;
- A desperate need exists for more teachers – especially ones of color who can more uniquely understand the particular hurdles facing students of color – who are trained better in how to relate to and identify with traumatized, disabled and/or international youth.
Henderson said mental health remains a top priority for New Orleans public schools, stating that “it definitely is a challenge schools face, not only in our city, but all over the country.”
He said training and preparing teachers and other support staff to treat and help children with emotional, mental, behavioral or socialization challenges or trauma are crucial. That’s in addition to strengthening outreach efforts to community-based or public-advocacy organizations that offer such services.
“We believe our schools can take steps to meet our students’ needs,” he said. “True clinical expertise [of staff] is what our schools truly need, having enough experts inside and outside of the classroom.”
To that end, Henderson pointed to a pair of recently-created programs that join with the local community to address mental health issues. One is the Center for Resilience, a day treatment/partial hospital program that provides therapeutic services for special education students in kindergarten through 10th grade whose mental and emotional needs can’t adequately be addressed in a traditional school setting.
Under the CFR, NOLA Public Schools contact the Center for referrals for qualified students to instructional, medical and therapeutic services at the CFR day
site, with the goal of “building the skills necessary to successfully transition back to the traditional school setting.”
The second program is the Trauma-Informed Schools Training of Trainers (ToT) project, a collaborative effort between the New Orleans Health Department, Tulane University and the Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Collaborative, “to increase the capacity of the New Orleans schools to overcome the structural challenges of creating and sustaining trauma-informed schools,” according to program officials.
The concept of trauma-informed schools aims to create safe environments in which to break up the cycle of violence often experienced by traumatized or emotionally-challenged youth. Having schools with such a sensitivity for traumatized students and the training to help such kids has resulted in drops in suspensions, expulsions and physical aggression within schools and student populations, national students have found, and locally, Safe Schools NOLA is in the process of studying the possible positive impact trauma-informed schools could have on teacher attitudes and behavior, student outcomes and school safety.
Community groups and advocacy organizations weighed in on the results found in the GNOF report, saying such a study was badly needed and should stimulate further change and progress. Representatives from Black Education for New Orleans (BE NOLA) welcomed the report.
“BE NOLA applauds the work that the Greater New Orleans Foundation and NOLA Public Schools put into this study,” the organization said in a statement to The Louisiana Weekly. “It’s more important than ever to address the needs of our students, schools, and teachers to create a more equitable system where students’ unique gifts and abilities can flourish.”
The BE NOLA statement highlighted the organization’s own goal of “supporting educators who represent the community they serve,” reflecting an emphasis on cultural and ethnic empathy and understanding that’s also present in the GNOF report. The statement added a belief in the importance that “providing resources to Black-led, Black-governed schools and their teachers will help accelerate outcomes for students.”
“Through this work, BE NOLA is actively working to address historical and current education inequities in New Orleans,” it continued. “We are thrilled to see NOLA-PS making it a priority to address this ‘educational debt.’ Acknowledging and addressing the disparities around schools serving Black students and the challenges many Black educators have faced in their work to deliver a quality education will take courage.
“Our students need knowledgeable, representative educators and access to an equitable education designed to meet their unique needs.”
The GNOF report cited four primary goals on which to focus – providing more great teachers, setting up students “to thrive, socially and emotionally;” prioritizing the needs and performance of disabled students, who “should get a rigorous education in settings that meet their needs;” and creating and nurturing rigorous but inclusive programs for students learning English.
“As we move forward, we must always put the voices of students, families, and educators first,” the report stated in its conclusion. “They are the experts. They know what it’s like to be in their schools each day. Our teachers are largely putting these changes into place, and our children are growing and working hard in their classrooms. This study aimed to let their voices be our guide, and as we take further action, we will listen to them every step of the way. We are grateful for the chance to support that work with these findings, and hope that our next steps can make things even better in every school.”
Henderson said optimism in the process is crucial, as is recognizing improvement when it happens and building off those successes.
“We know that positive change is happening every day,” he said. “We are well prepared to tackle [these challenges] together. We need a commitment to the community, and I’m optimistic about where we’re headed. This report finally puts everything in one place.”
This article originally published in the January 27, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.