Your School Next Door

May 8, 2013

Getting a good public education in New Orleans has always meant hitting the books. But these days, in the post-Katrina landscape of school choice and charters, for most kids it also means hitting the road.

“Eighty percent of the public school students travel three miles or more to get to school, each way, every day,” says Mat Schwarzman, executive director of the New Orleans Kids Partnership.

This nonprofit supports a constellation of more than 40 organizations helping students reach their potential through afterschool, weekend and summer programs. He says the new reality of kids commuting to their schools has changed the way they access these services. After all, attending an after-school program five miles away from home is a different prospect than one five blocks down the street, especially for families trying to navigate work schedules and transportation needs. And Schwarzman says all this travel has had a more subtle, though profound, influence on how students relate to each other.

“You have the vast majority of families and kids traveling across town to a school, everyday, socializing with a certain set of peers, but you don’t see any of those people, except at school functions, they don’t live in your neighborhood,” he says. “And then you have the other side, where you have kids and families living next to one another in the same neighborhood and they don’t know each other because they don’t go to the same school.”

But now, the New Orleans Kids Partnership is working to make the potential of its member organizations available to students and families closer to home, through their neighborhood school, even if the students are enrolled somewhere across town.

“We’ve developed a model for a community hub that would be based in one school but would serve families who live in, or attend school in, the surrounding neighborhood,” says Schwarzman. It’s starting at Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly, where each Saturday, for a 12-week run this spring and summer, the schoolhouse will be a veritable clearinghouse of recreation, arts, mentoring, support and enrichment from partnership member groups that work in different areas but share a common goal. One group is Start the Adventure In Reading, or STAIR, which pairs volunteer tutors with elementary school students to help improve their reading skills.

“So we provide literacy, we’re narrowly focused. But we work with so many other partners, sometimes at the same schools with the same families,” says STAIR executive director Sara Woodard. “I feel it’s just so much more effective to be working together for the children and youth of the New Orleans area and have a collective impact, that’s the concept here.”

The partnership plans to expand this community hub model to other parts of town and link it with similar initiatives that are also working to make the schoolhouse more central to neighborhood life. It’s a new approach, but as Schwarzman points out, it taps an idea with deep roots in this city.

“I think we’re trying to really capitalize on that aspect of New Orleans culture, that people are so identified with the neighborhood they live in,” he says. “Actually, we’re counting on that.”

Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about NOKP, click here. To learn more about STAIR, click here.