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Removing Barriers: Special Education Program Provides Vital Services in NOLA

June 9, 2017
Opportunities Academy offers college experience for students with disabilities
Opportunities Academy Director Megan Gold with Monica, one of the program’s students.

A few weeks ago, the mother of one of my students came to our school for an update on her daughter’s progress over the past academic year.

These are the kinds of meetings that often trigger dread among parents of kids with special needs and disabilities, who live with a nagging fear about what the future holds for their children. Too often, these mothers and fathers hear a lot about skill deficits, academic delays or behavioral problems that loom as barriers on their child’s road to independence.

But on this day, in this meeting, there was good news for mom. I recounted how her daughter, Monica, a student in our Opportunities Academy, had progressed so much academically –– and socially –– that she had been tutoring high school sophomores in geometry. Not only that, Monica had recently taught a full class of students in geometry.

What makes this story so great? Only four years ago, when Monica was a high school sophomore, she was reading at a first-grade level. She had multiple disabilities that specifically impacted her ability to communicate clearly and was on an uncertain academic trajectory with few options beyond 12th grade.

Opportunities Academy is giving Monica and other students with disabilities in New Orleans a chance to redefine what is possible for them after they leave school and seek rewarding work and independence.

By law, students with disabilities in Louisiana are entitled to educational services until they turn 22. But until two years ago, New Orleans did not have any programs that provided economically disadvantaged students with disabilities a college-like experience once they completed four years of high school. Rather than be able to take on new challenges, students would simply cycle back into their regular high schools, often repeating the same classes and programs they had already completed.

Operated by the Collegiate Academies network of schools, Opportunities Academy offers a rigorous, full day program aimed at helping students reach their highest level of achievement. The curriculum focuses on developing independent living skills, helping students access the community and prepares them for future jobs and careers.

Ronald, an Opportunities Academy student, smiles during his recent graduation ceremony in New Orleans.

Our program currently serves 18 students with a range of disabilities on two Collegiate Academies sites – at Abramson Sci Academy and G.W. Carver High School. Students enter the program after earning high school credits from those two schools. Some are on the autism spectrum. Some require voice-assisted technology to communicate. Others are in wheelchairs.

But from the start of the day until the end, we make the students’ time at Opportunities Academy feel as much like a college experience as possible. Students have breakfast together –– spending time in unstructured socializing or learning to eat independently. They work with staff on independent living skills, but also on academics such as reading and math, so they don’t lose the gains they made in those areas during high school.

We tailor their instruction to improving functional living skills –– like budgeting for groceries, reading recipes or modified books that are both age and reading-level appropriate.

Our students plan trips into the community, build fitness through physical education and focus on social skills through classes such as improv theater. All of our students participate in an on-campus internship to prepare them for work life in the future.

Our students’ life goals guide our programming decisions –– there is a lot of room to be creative based on our students’ goals and dreams. And we’ve put their ideas into practice.

For example, last year, our students opened an in-school coffee business because several students had career goals of becoming cashiers and restaurant managers. For two hours every day, students run tOAsty’s at Abramson Sci Academy, selling coffee to staff and visitors from the Opportunities Academy classroom and a mobile cart that travels around the school. On Fridays, service is opened to high school seniors.

The coffee shop enterprise was such a hit that students on our Carver campus started a similar business there this year. It is now one of the signature elements of our program.

tOAsty’s teaches students a wide variety of skills. They improve their ability to interact with peers, look people in the eye, take money and give change and provide great customer service.

We want our students to be exposed to a wide range of potential jobs and careers as they prepare to transition to life after school. It’s truly inspiring to see the progress that students like Monica can make when given a chance.

In her years with us, first at Abramson Sci Academy and now at Opportunities Academy, Monica’s academic proficiency had progressed so much that she is taking pre-calculus courses. Her social skills have improved dramatically. In addition to now tutoring sophomores in geometry, she is a manager at tOAsty’s and training incoming students in the business.

Many students with disabilities face limitations because the rest of us have imagined the world in a way that doesn’t always fit for them. I like to think of the work that we are doing as re-imagining the world so it is acceptable and accessible for everyone.

Where others might see barriers to a student’s goals and aspirations, I try to envision the bridge that will allow them to overcome those barriers and achieve the life they want. Monica wanted to be a teacher, so our team figured out how to get her in the classroom and now she’s impacting high school students’ lives. I have no doubt that if we have a student who wants to be an astronaut, there is someone in our network who can figure out how we can get them working at NASA.

There’s always a bridge we can build –– it’s just a matter of figuring out how to go about building it.

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