High school students discuss street art in a July 2019 class at The NET: Gentilly that focuses on the intersection of civics and art. The NET's charter group will open a therapeutic program for seventh and eighth grade students who’ve been expelled in August 2019. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

A new program for expelled middle school students will open in New Orleans next month, filling a need the district has had since October when the previous program abruptly closed. 

Educators for Quality Alternatives, a nonprofit that runs two alternative high schools, will open a therapeutic program for up to 30 seventh and eighth grade students. 

Elizabeth Ostberg is the executive director of the group, which runs The NET: Gentilly and The NET: Central City. The new middle school program’s restorative focus and therapeutic model led them to the name it The Bridge, she said, “because it’s a pathway to a stronger start back at your other school.”

“Historically and even today some people really think about expulsion as serving time, you go some place and then you get to go back to regular school,” she said. “And I think the way we are thinking about it is, if you have been expelled, you are probably struggling with a lot of different things.”

Ostberg sees that time as an opportunity. Each student who attends The Bridge will work with a counselor, therapist, their parents and their home school to create a plan that outlines their goals for the program and a plan for returning to their regular school.

“We should take this opportunity to really provide an intensive intervention — academically, behaviorally, socially, therapeutically — so that when you go back, you’re going back with more tools, more skills, you know in a stronger place,” she said.

The Bridge will open next month in the Orleans Parish school district’s Mahalia Jackson facility. Director Charisse Bynoe will lead a team of teachers, counselors and a therapist at the site. Bynoe, a former teacher, said she most recently served as the director of family support in the special education office with the New York City Department of Education.

The school will have one teacher focusing on science and math instruction and another that leads English and social studies. A third teacher will lead enrichment courses, such as physical education, music and art. Each class will also have a counselor.

If they need more teachers, they’ll hire them, Ostberg said. But because no one has been expelled in the 2019-2020 school year yet, technically they aren’t starting with any students, so they have time to adapt. If a seventh or eighth grade student in the city is expelled, they will be referred to The Bridge. 

Expulsions in a decentralized system

New Orleans school district’s unique all-charter model functions as a decentralized system of charter networks and single-site charter schools. When the system was in its infancy, with many different oversight agencies, charter schools were allowed to expel students on their own. 

Parents and advocates complained that schools could push out kids they didn’t want by expelling them without due process. In 2013, the Recovery School District brought the final word on expulsions at charter schools under a centralized office

Now, the district’s student hearing office handles expulsions. If a student’s school recommends the student for expulsion based on a certain offense, the district holds a hearing. A hearing officer makes a final decision. If a student is expelled, it’s generally for six months to a year.

Technically, students of any age can be expelled. Older students can attend alternative schools but younger students are placed in a new school. 

A statement provided by the Orleans Parish School Board further explained the process. “If a K-6 student is found guilty and removed from campus, unlike students enrolled in upper grades, who may be reassigned to an alternative-model school, students enrolled in grades K-6 will be reassigned to another traditional model school.”

The district also refers those students to the Youth Opportunity Center which provides additional support for parents and students. 

Since October, seventh and eighth graders have been among the expelled students going to other city charter schools instead of attending an alternative school. That’s because the city’s previous program for middle school students, offered at Crescent Leadership Academy, abruptly shut down last fall. The charter school unexpectedly closed its doors on 66 students in seventh through twelfth-grade.

In June, the Orleans Parish School Board chose The Bridge proposal. The board approved a one-year $250,000 contract for the program. Ostberg said that funding covers overhead for the program.

“We expect that’s the gap going forward,” she said. “Because of the intensity of the program it’s always going to cost more than a regular school’s [state funding].”

Schools with an expelled student pay a day rate for each day the student is at an alternative site. At The Bridge, Ostberg said, there will be an additional fee because it’s a therapeutic program.

A statement released by the Orleans Parish School Board said “in the past two academic years, 35 students each year, in 7th and 8th grade, have been expelled.”

A pilot year

As she prepares for the school year, Bynoe said she and Ostberg are finalizing the intake and exit processes for Bridge students. They also have some interviews scheduled this week to round out their teaching team. 

Bynoe said she was drawn to the program because of its therapeutic approach and goal to return students to their original school. She said she’s currently finishing her doctorate degree and her research study covers trauma-informed school leadership practices.

The Bridge will help students work through goals created in their individual plan but ultimately work within the district’s expulsion model.

“Right now, the way New Orleans does expulsions is time-based. It’s not actually skill based,” Ostberg said. “I think eventually if we are able to show that kids are growing and developing we could probably move the city to where your expulsion is based on skill development. There are definitely places that do that.”

“But if you’re not going back faster you’re going back much stronger,” she said.

Asked if the program might ever enroll younger students who are expelled or work with students having trouble at their school, Ostberg said that wasn’t her decision to make. 

“I think there will be evidence to say either that we should work with younger students or that there should be an option for schools and families to opt-in the program before a student is in a position to get expelled,” Ostberg said. “This is just sort of the beginning of ideally providing a series of supports that are missing in the middle school space.”

If The Bridge is providing a program that could help kids before they’re expelled, Ostberg said it may become a question of when students gain access to these types of supports. 

“I think it’s going to be a really good thing for kids and the city.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...