Before Katrina tore through the city of New Orleans in 2005, the public school system suffered from corruption and neglect. After the storm wiped out a majority of their schools, the city saw a chance to make a change.
Thus, the state handed responsibility to the its new Recovery School District (RSD), recasting its public schools as charter schools.
Charter schools have a reputation of being hard on discipline. A study conducted by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA found that in the 2011–12 school year, 374 charter schools around the nation suspended, in total, 25 percent of their enrolled student body.
One school that was strict on discipline was Crocker College Prep, an elementary school in New Orleans. It has since relaxed it’s stance and is now one of five New Orleans charter schools that works to account for the emotional and behavioral needs of its students.
According to a study conducted by the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, in 2013, 39 percent of New Orleans children lived in poverty, which disproportionately causes chronic stress and anxiety. These conditions often manifest in students in ways that are likely to affect their school performance and experience, said Rochelle Gauthier, one of Crocker’s two social workers.
“The types of traumas we see run the gambit,” Gauthier said. “We have students whose parents are incarcerated, students in foster care due to physical and sexual abuse and neglect, homelessness, exposure to domestic and community violence … anything you can think of.
“Not every student affected by trauma struggles in school. Many of them are incredibly resilient and have developed amazing coping skills, but many of them struggle behaviorally.”
Crocker College Prep now works to deal with trauma, employing two full-time social workers, Gauthier and Osha Sempel, who provide case management, individual and group counseling, crisis management, skill building and more, Gauthier said.
“I think the research is pretty clear about the no-excuse discipline systems and [their] direct impact on the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “If we can find better ways to discipline all of our youths that keeps them in class and in school, then we will have a healthier society overall.”
While Crocker is trauma informed, it still enforces rules and holds students accountable for their actions. But it also encourages students to reflect on their actions and how those actions affect others, Principle Nicole Boykins said.
The school works to keep students in class, if possible. It has set up peace corners with stress balls and a wellness center where they can talk to a trusted adult. In place of suspensions, Crocker has developed “restorative circles,” which help repair the harm rather than advancing straight to suspension.
One student who has made significant progress dealing with the mental illness, alcoholism and neglect from her mother and the absence of her father is Sherlae. She is a prime example of growth through the school’s program, Gauthier said.
When upset, Sherlae would completely shut down, which affected her grades and led her teachers to believe she didn’t care about school. After repeating the fourth grade, Sherlae’s grandmother sought the school’s help.
School administrators and Sherlae’s grandmother helped her manage her pain through poetry and spoken word, while also providing her the emotional and academic support she didn’t have before.
“I do see students coming to us more often to talk things out and handle problems proactively,” Gauthier said. “They request restorative circles when they sense a problem building and are using the language of trying to fix it.”
While there has been a change in students, the biggest change comes from the teachers, Boykins said.
“Teachers truly care about meeting the needs of all students vs. wanting to issue consequences or seeing a student be punished, “ Boykins said. “Countless amounts of parents thank the school staff day in and day out for working with their students.”
Both Guathier and Boykins hope this system is replicated throughout both the state and the country to create an environment of safety, trust and transparency, and they have no doubts that it can be.
“We need to change the way we approach our kids so that we can defy the status quo and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline,” Boykins said. “If we can help create happier, healthier, well-educated little people, then society will benefit as a whole.”