In the race to improve New Orleans schools, let’s not forget one special group

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Degree of  Interest

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New Orleans’ renaissance won’t be determined by how many “smart” people emigrate into the city. Her resurgence will be determined by how smartly the space includes all its residents’ gifts.

For five weeks in the summer, Carlos, my 18 year-old son, who has special needs, contributes to New Orleans’ recovery by building bat boxes – assembled homes for the oft-misunderstood flying mammals.

“We typically think of bats as pests,” said Meaghan D’Arcy, summer program manager for the Louisiana Green Corps, “but they help maintain the ecosystem of City Park by consuming lots of insects.”

Through New Orleans’ Job1 program, the Green Corps offers the Exceptional Student Summer Transition Program to provide youth with special needs opportunities not typically afforded to people like Carlos. Through a Department of Labor National Emergency grant, LA Green Corps was established in May 2008 with the mission of providing “green job training to unemployed, under-employed, court involved or otherwise disadvantaged New Orleans residents.”

By fostering the inclusion of disenfranchised and undervalued talent, Green Corps is expanding our conventional notions of sustainability, equity and growth. LA Green Corps is challenging what cities priming for population growth are promoting.

“The Big Easy doesn’t want fewer bachelor parties. It just wants more bachelor’s degrees.” This Atlantic Monthly article sub-headline typifies the ubiquitous push for a certain kind of new resident. The new young talent coming into New Orleans is a source of pride for recovery czars, even a marketing tool. But, is it the most effective way to build a sustainable city?

The new knowledge economy certainly privileges brain over brawn. However, when smartness is rigidly privileged over service, cities insidiously devalue other significant ways people contribute to an economy. Moreover, disenfranchised people are devalued. Even schools rhetoric of college prep puts pressure on schools to eliminate programs that serve children with exceptionalities.

To say New Orleans struggles educating students with special needs is like saying violence in the city is a nuisance.

In its 2010 lawsuit, which is still pending against the state, the Southern Poverty Law Center cited statistics of New Orleans public schools difficulties with meeting the needs of all students. The graduation rate for students with disabilities in the state run Recovery School District Schools (RSD) was less than half the overall graduation rate. Only 6.8 percent of RSD students with disabilities exited with a high school diploma compared with a 19.4 percent state average. In the 2008-09 school year, the approximately 30 percent RSD suspension rate of students with disabilities was 63 percent higher than the state average.

I believe the Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly suggests the highly decentralized charter system in New Orleans is a cause for the educational malpractice against students with special needs. Families with children who were in the system before Katrina merely had their balloons of hope popped by unmet expectations. Parents including myself wanted to see more. Unmet expectation around special education is not a post-Katrina phenomenon.

However, public schools receive a disproportionate amount of scrutiny when it comes to the education of students with special needs. Private and parochial schools offer scant data and flatly abdicate their responsibilities to teach all students equitably and fairly.

“There are no options.” Lolita Gonzales, a New Orleans pediatrician, said agitatedly. Gonzales’ teenage daughter attended Holy Rosary Academy, which historically accommodated students with special needs, but because of a change towards a more traditional high school curriculum, her daughter was “pushed out.” Gonzales’s daughter now attends St. Michael Special School in New Orleans, which does not offer high school diplomas.

Gonzales did consider a public school, but as a physician, she examined sexually transmitted diseases among too many patients with special needs. Gonzales points out how intellectual capacity makes one more vulnerable for exploitation, sexual assault and rape. The public space is simply more open to the ills of society. Gonzales said, “You put your child at risk for sexual harassment and bullying in the public schools, and the kids just don’t have a community of peers in a supportive environment.”

But schools aren’t the only institutions that are charged with building inclusive environments. What about businesses? What about the business of recovery?

LA Green Corp. is unique in that it addresses a knowledge economy issue – environmental justice – with undervalued children. This action forces us to reconsider the notion of talent less of as having skills or credentials and more of as contributing to the betterment of a community. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best; “Anyone can be great because anybody can serve.” Likewise, environmental justice is about valuing all people and things in a space. Protecting New Orleans ecology may literally be about creating the spaces in which the work of residents with special needs is valued. True innovation is about creating those spaces of inclusion.

Like most parents of children with noted exceptionalities, we just want our child to serve his community and family to the best of his abilities. Our son has to work. He has to contribute. That expectation is no different from our other children.

How well we incorporate all members of the community into the economic, social and political goals of a community should be considered in our conceptualizations of growth – including children with special needs. As PolicyLink says, “inclusion is the new growth model.” The question is, will New Orleans make the space for all of our contributions? LA Green Corps is helping in that process.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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