This school helps students with intellectual disabilities to “live life to the fullest” | Education

LeShantea Jackson carefully poured steaming water over the coffee grounds, her gaze fixed on the swirling pattern. Referring to a laminated list of steps, she then poured the coffee into a mug, added milk and handed it to Robert Jones, who put the coffee in a cardboard holder for delivery.

In the outdoor courtyard, a group of students vacuumed and washed cars with soapy sponges. A few hallways away, others wiped windows and swept floors, some with their hands kindly guided by work coaches. In a model apartment upstairs, the students practiced making beds.

These are the lessons of Opportunities Academy, a Collegiate Academies charter school in downtown New Orleans. It serves around 70 students aged 18-22 with a range of intellectual disabilities and autism, helping them grow towards independence. Students learn skills and gain work experience while striving to achieve goals tailored to each student and their abilities.

Students wash cars at Opportunities Academy in New Orleans on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. About 70 students with developmental disabilities and ages 18 to 21 attend the charter school to learn life skills and pursue vocational training courses to live more independently.

The school grew out of a program at Abramson Sci Academy and was granted its own charter in 2019. It is the only tuition-free program of its kind in the New Orleans area and one of rare in Louisiana. Last year, the school received the highest honor, the Distinguished Merit Award, from the Office of the Governor for Disability Affairs.

“We’re there every day, and we in this building know we’re doing something special,” said Sophia Scott, executive director of Opportunities Academy. “But it feels good that people outside the building know that too.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and State Senator Karen Carter Peterson nominated the school for the award.

“They extraordinarily deserve this award,” Cantrell said. “The school has expanded educational opportunities for New Orleans youth with disabilities, transforming the lives of students and the families they serve.”

On a recent morning, the students practiced identifying their birthdays on a calendar and naming the days of the week.

Opportunity Academy

Coach Yvonne Griffin leads Megan Poree in washing a window at Opportunities Academy in New Orleans on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. About 70 students with developmental disabilities and ages 18-21 attend the school at charter to acquire life skills and take a job training courses to live more independently.

Then they headed to their internships, working various jobs at the on-site cafe, called rOAst, and the car wash, called sOAptopia, or doing chores around the school. Before the pandemic, students did internships outside of school, including at the Superdome to help the caretaker team. Just like a regular job, students clock in and out, submit time sheets, adhere to the dress code, and are paid $8 an hour.

Opportunities Academy is reimbursed for some students by Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, part of the state Department of Labor; the school covers the cost of teaching other students from its share of school tax revenue.

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The school spends between $40,000 and $45,000 per student, said Davis Zaunbrecher, director of strategy for Collegiate Academies. Other Collegiate Academies high schools spend about $15,000 per student, a figure that is in the “high end” for schools across the city due to the breadth of our special education program for our students with disabilities. “.

“Skills to live life to the fullest”

Walking around the school in the afternoon, one may find students brushing their teeth or washing their faces, folding clothes, learning to read and paying bills, or prepare for a job interview. The sessions also teach independent living skills such as how to use public transportation, Scott said.

Physical and occupational therapists assist students throughout the day, and some use the upstairs lab to hone their tactile and motor skills.

“There are academic elements built in, but it’s really about transition and making sure they have the skills to live life to the fullest after they graduate and after they leave the public school system,” said said Davis Zaunbrecher, a spokesperson for the school.

Opportunity Academy

Robert Jones, who delivers coffee around Opportunities Academy for his coffeeshop, called rOAst, laughs while holding his checklist and coffee order in New Orleans on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. About 70 students with developmental disabilities and ages 18 to 21 attend charter school to learn life skills and take job training courses to live more independently.

More than 20% of Collegiate Academies high school students have a disability. About 13% of students enrolled in public schools in Orleans Parish have an individualized education program, a level comparable to public school systems across the United States, said schools spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo. public NOLA.

Students come from a number of local high schools to Opportunities Academy, where they can stay until age 22. Scott said the school does not turn away any student who meets the requirements set by the state.

Navigate through a complex system

Before students depart, Opportunities Academy helps set them up with agencies like the Metropolitan Human Services District and Louisiana Rehabilitation Services to facilitate next steps in the complex world of supporting adults with disabilities.

At rOAst, orders come in sporadically from teachers and staff. As Miguel Laurent stirred a bowl of trail mix, he enthusiastically peppered Kathleen Coverick, the director of finance and operations, with questions about an upcoming basketball rally.

Laurent said he planned to spend his paycheck on a full plate of ribs at Texas Roadhouse, his favorite restaurant.

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