“How are you, Miss Elizabeth?” A group of three young men hold the door open and wait for their principal before they enter the nondescript building.
School leader Elizabeth Ostberg has earned the respect of students – and educators – in Louisiana for the approach she’s championed since hurricane Katrina hit more than a decade ago.
In August, Ms. Ostberg opened her second New Orleans charter school, The NET: Gentilly, as a way to put students who’ve been expelled, dropped out, or are at risk of dropping out, back on track. The enrollment waitlist and desire to keep class sizes small were her main motivations for not adding more seats at the original sister campus, The NET: Central City.
The expansion is one indication of progress in a city with a complex, slowly improving education system. As of July 1, the remaining schools will transition from the authority of the state-run Recovery School District back to the Orleans Parish School Board. The move reflects demonstrated progress from schools and that the district has enough of a foundation to manage itself on a local level.
“The NET is a critical part of the entire system as it moves ahead,” says Kunjan Narechania, CEO of the Recovery School District. “Elizabeth has done a really thoughtful job with students who are over-age, [and] under-credited ... so they can thrive.”
When Ostberg arrived in the wake of Katrina in 2005, the city was in crisis mode. The school district was going bankrupt and schools were failing. The city had tossed its public school program, ranked among the worst in the United States, and traded it in for the Recovery School District, made up of more than 80 charter schools.
The Harvard grad immersed herself in the education system, then recruited community members and teachers to commit four years to researching best practices of alternative schools around the nation. This led to the holistic model Ostberg implemented in 2012 when she opened her first school. At the time, there was only one other alternative school in New Orleans.
“Many young people continue to struggle with issues that are greater than traditional models can support,” says Ostberg, who notes she has learned a lot since opening her first school, particularly about her students’ crises. “It pushes us to improve our trauma-informed practices and commit more deeply to our restorative practices.”
Both the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education describe The NET as one of the state’s best alternative schools. Two to three schools visit The NET each year to study best practices. The model is reflective of where the Department of Education wants Louisiana schools to be in terms of services and care, according to Katie Barras, the agency’s education program consultant.
“She’s built a program that assists the student as a whole,” says Ms. Barras. “She’s an exemplar in reengaging students.”
Most of Ostberg’s students have been diagnosed with trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder because of violence, extreme poverty, natural disasters, or family issues. The school has lost several students to gun violence. All students receive free or reduced lunch, a national measure of poverty, and range in age from 15 to 21.
From dropout to college bound
Shavonte Thomas left her former school after a fight. A friend told her about The NET, where she’s now enrolled. When Ms. Thomas first arrived, she didn’t see herself going to college, but found that intimate classrooms and a hands-on approach strengthened her.
“I don’t get easily distracted now and the teachers encourage me to come to class and help me with my study skills,” says Thomas, who plans to earn a high school diploma in August.
“She has three internships and is considering a fourth in biology. We’re now looking at colleges in New York and New Orleans for her,” says Charmaine Harris, the Gentilly campus internship coordinator. “This student is awesome.”
Ostberg found it important to use buildings that don’t resemble schools, so as not to “trigger a negative response” in her students. Both campuses have full-time counselors and third-party resources, such as construction certification programs, psychiatrists, and internships.
“We know that students are more likely to stay in school if they have one positive relationship with an adult that’s really supportive and pushes them to stay in school,” Ostberg says from her Gentilly campus office where she hangs students' and graduates’ photos. “Every adult here knows every student, and that goes directly into our best practices.”
After graduating from The NET, most students attend college or secure jobs. At the Gentilly campus, 10 students have earned diplomas as of January. Ostberg says her original campus has an 85 percent graduation rate, which differs from the 28.6 rate reported by the Department of Education. Ostberg says the discrepancy is mainly because her students take longer than four years to graduate.
“This is not a correct reflection of the school’s success,” says the Education Department's Barras. Of the 35 alternative schools in Louisiana, all but one have a “D” or an “F” grade, including The NET, according to the agency. This fall, it plans to propose a different set of indicators to gauge the progress of alternative schools.
“All schools in our state are measured on the same evaluators,” says Barras. “When you think about the unique environment in an alternative school and the types of students and challenges they bring, the accountability system doesn’t address the full landscape of everything that happens at the alternative site. We’re hoping to change this.”
Support outside of class
The NET’s Next Steps program is a crucial part of the student’s transition after graduation. Students begin the program one year before graduation. Alumni are encouraged to use The NET’s resources, such as job interview preparation and even bus fares.
Graduate Kibriah Jackson moved from Nevada to New Orleans in 2014.
“I was having a hard time … and it was hard to find any schools that would accept me since it was not at the beginning of the year. The NET is extremely accepting,” says Ms. Jackson.
The shy Jackson eventually made friends with a group of students and met her boyfriend. She loved The NET’s internship program and served two medical internships at Tulane Medical Center and Touro Infirmary. After graduating two years ahead of schedule, she and her boyfriend moved back to Nevada, where she’s currently enrolled in community college and working part-time at Subway. She plans to transfer to the University of Nevada, where she hopes to study to become a nurse.
“I love that we had the opportunity to intern because it helped me decide what I want to do in the future. The NET is so supportive of everything. If I was having a bad day, I’d go in and they’d always be there for me,” says Jackson, who’s still in contact with her Next Steps coordinator.
Because Ostberg is very aware of the trauma her students have endured, she’s been a major proponent of the restorative approach, providing yearly training to every staff member.
“One of my favorite parts about The NET is how we handle conflict amongst the students and the staff,” Harris says. “We have mediations and they have to talk about it. And so does the staff. The teacher’s not always right. It’s the coolest thing for everyone to be held accountable.”
Harris gave her students an assignment to write about a loved one, but one student refused. She didn’t scold or punish him, but instead told him to go to the Dean’s Suite, where students rest when they need space.
“I joined him and we talked through the problem. We found out that he had issues with one of his loved ones and the assignment had upset him. I told him how well he was doing in class and how much I wanted him there,” Harris says.
That same day, the student was lost to gun violence.
“He was the first student I lost,” Harris says. “I was so grateful he didn’t leave the building with a big issue. We need to at least talk to each other. We can then resolve it.”