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Falling Through The Cracks: Young Lives Adrift In New Orleans

Craig Adams, Jr., 18, is studying for his second try at the high school equivalency exam.
LA Johnson/NPR
Craig Adams, Jr., 18, is studying for his second try at the high school equivalency exam.

On weekend afternoons, Craig Adams Jr. plays for tourists on the streets of the French Quarter.

He gigs with different bands, bringing whatever's needed: trumpet, trombone, saxophone — he plays six or seven instruments in all. There's a white plastic bucket on the sidewalk so people can drop in cash as they browse the T-shirts and Mardi Gras masks.

Craig is 18, and there's music in his blood: "I had my uncle, my grandfather, and my dad to teach me." His father, Craig Adams Sr., leads a group called the Higher Dimensions of Praise Gospel Band.

Soloing on "St. James Infirmary" or bantering with tourists, Adams comes across as a confident charmer.

Behind the scenes, it's more complicated.

He started high school at St. Augustine, a Catholic school renowned for its marching band. Then, at age 14, he became a father. His dad sent him to live with his mother in Texas.

There, he was booked on assault charges, for what he says was defending his younger brother, who has mental disabilities, against a bully.

"I flashed out," he says. "I beat the kid up. His mama called the police and they sent me to jail." He has been in and out of four high schools, and is now studying for his second attempt at the high school equivalency exam.

When you add up all the opportunities for opportunity youth in New Orleans, there is a total of roughly 1,200 spaces. That's one for every 22 young people who are not in school.

"Basically, I really want my education," he says. "I preach to my son all the time about staying in school and getting this education and I don't want to be made out to be looking like a hypocrite, because nowadays you can't get a job at McDonalds without a high school diploma."

Adams is what used to be called "at risk" or "disconnected." The latest euphemism is "opportunity youth." Whatever you call them, these are young people ages 16 to 24 who are neither regularly in school, nor regularly working. There are 5 1/2 million of them in the United States.

These are the kids who are chronically truant, run away, get expelled, drop out, run afoul of the law. Some get pregnant. Others face mental health issues, learning disabilities, homelessness, trauma or abuse. Sometimes, it's all of the above.

Getting them back on track is a wicked problem. For one thing, they're inherently hard to identify. They tend to bounce between bureaucracies: the schools, social services, the courts and law enforcement. Or they slip through the fingers of all of them.

New Orleans is an important place to look at opportunity youth for a couple of reasons. First, there are a lot of them here. According to a recent estimate by Tulane University, about 18.2 percent of all 16- to 24-year-olds in the city fall into this category — the third-highest rate in the nation, after Memphis and Las Vegas.

Second, many critics of the all-charter school system here ask: Does the decentralized school system itself contribute to young people's disconnection?

The NET Charter High School sits on a typical New Orleans strip.
/ Catherine Rierson for NPR
Catherine Rierson for NPR
The NET Charter High School sits on a typical New Orleans strip.

A 'Fragmented' System

Schools in New Orleans have to contend with an undertow of violence that begins just outside their front door. New Orleans was once famously the nation's murder capital. The tally has been dropping recently in the wake of a major anti-gang initiative called NOLA for Life, but the city's still in the top 10,and other violent crimes are up.

When youth get into trouble, whether it's a serious crime or even a single arrest for loitering or truancy, it's a big risk factor for their future. Getting them back on track requires sophisticated coordination among schools, social agencies, and law enforcement.

Elizabeth Ostberg, founding principal of The NET, has decorated her office with photos of students who have graduated.
/ Catherine Rierson for NPR
Catherine Rierson for NPR
Elizabeth Ostberg, founding principal of The NET, has decorated her office with photos of students who have graduated.

Josh Perry sees some of that happening in New Orleans. His group, the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, serves as the public defender for most of the juveniles prosecuted in New Orleans. There were 900 such arrests last year.

"In the past three years I've seen some real and positive change in terms of the ability of the many school systems in New Orleans to function as one coherent system inasmuch as they are able to connect kids back to school," he says.

But, he adds, the state is still overinvesting in locking up kids in prisons and jails, where their access to education is far behind what's found in other states. Most of all, Perry says, the system is still "fragmented" and unequal to the problem.

When Craig Adams Jr. made his way back to New Orleans from Texas in 2013, it was to an alternative school, The NET Charter High School. The other two second-chance options in the Recovery School District are ReNEW Accelerated and the Crescent Leadership Academy, which we wrote about Friday.

The NET is located in an unassuming building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, a famous strip in Central City that exemplifies the city's post-Katrina bohemian gentrification. Its windowless classrooms house traditional, computer-based and seminar-style classes with a low student-teacher ratio — just 150 students in all.

In The NET's schoolyard, a memorial bench to students who have lost their lives.
/ Catherine Rierson for NPR
Catherine Rierson for NPR
In The NET's schoolyard, a memorial bench to students who have lost their lives.

There are internships, camping trips and a construction class that built a wooden deck outside the school building. The school has six blocks of classes each day, between 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., so students can plan around work and child care.

There are three semesters, and three graduations, per year. Founding Principal Elizabeth Ostberg and her staff help each student craft his or her own plan to get across that finish line.

This flexibility is essential for her students' success, Ostberg says. If you understand why and how kids drop out, you understand that they need lots of support and multiple routes to return.

"I used to think there would be this day, and the kid would think, 'Now I'm not going to school.' But there's a long process in which school is not working for the kid and the kid is not working for school," she says.

That's pretty much what happened with Craig.

Whatever the virtues of The NET, it was not a good fit for him. Ostberg says he was often absent. Craig says when he did show up for class, study took a back seat to gossip.

"We wasn't really learning anything," he recalls. "We would just sit down in class and talk all day, like, spill the beans! 'Tell me what's going on, girl!' 'What's she doing?' 'Girl, he in jail' ... "

And there's this stark fact:

During the months he was there, in the fall of 2013, five NET students out of 150 lost their lives in shootings. One was Adams' relative, Terrence Roberts, just 15 years old.

None of the incidents were directly connected to the school, but they hit too close to home for Craig. "I have a son to look out for," he says of his leaving. "I don't want to be around anything that could possibly take my life."

Just Down The Block

"Most cities have a much more robust set of options for kids who drop out," says Ostberg. "New Orleans is getting better, but it still doesn't have the same network of options that it needs."

New York City, the nation's largest school system, has an entire district, District 79, dedicated to second-chance and alternative schools for youth up to age 21. The Los Angeles Unified School District has career-technical, work-study, online and evening programs and schools just for pregnant teens.

When you add up all the "opportunities" for opportunity youth in New Orleans — the three alternative schools, with between 110 and 150 students each, plus the small number of nonprofits that also serve this population — Ostberg points out that they have a total of roughly 1,200 spaces. That's one for every 22 young people who are not in school or working.

But Craig was lucky. When The NET wasn't working for him, he started showing up at the offices of a nonprofit just down the block, the Youth Empowerment Project. A receptionist named Donna Wolf befriended him and convinced him to give YEP a try.

Adams says he's determined to get an education. He's found a comfort zone at the Youth Empowerment Project.
/ LA Johnson/NPR
LA Johnson/NPR
Adams says he's determined to get an education. He's found a comfort zone at the Youth Empowerment Project.

"Miss Donna, oh, that's my mama!" he says. "She protects me. And that's what I really wanted, to feel welcome."

The Youth Empowerment Project is the largest adult-education provider for out-of-school youth in New Orleans, serving a few hundred per year in three locations.

Melissa Sawyer, its director, says that in recent years her organization, intended to serve youth up to age 24, has seen an influx of 16- and 17-year-olds who have not been successful in the school system.

Sawyer and her staff have created a special program, the Village, for these younger students. It includes a full-time social worker and a mentor from the community. They offer help with everything from job applications to getting the lights turned back on. There are field trips to the French Quarter, bowling, the movies.

"We look more holistically at our young people," Sawyer says. "They have a whole bunch of potential and are really smart, but oftentimes don't have the relationships, the networks, the skills, the access to opportunity that they need."

It was here that something finally clicked for Craig Adams. Maybe it was "Mama D." Or maybe it was Rodney Carey, his teacher, a role model he could identify with who faced his own demons growing up in the Ninth Ward.

January 2015 was actually Craig's second try at the Youth Empowerment Project, something of a New Year's resolution. He first showed up the previous fall. This time, it's sticking.

Students here come in, on average, working at a fifth-grade level in math and reading. Craig has several months of classes to go, reviewing basic math and English skills for several hours a day, twice a week.

On top of that, he has daytime busking, late-night gigs, sometime construction work and two young children — a 4-year-old son and now a 2-year-old daughter, who both live with their mother. "I have a very tough schedule," he says. "Most of the time when I'm at home I'm asleep."

The Youth Empowerment Project's policy is: "No eject, no reject." But an open door is expensive.

Sawyer points out that when a teenager leaves a charter school and enrolls in her program, public money doesn't follow them. There is less out-of-town cash coming in than immediately after Katrina. And, says Sawyer, community organizations are in competition with charter schools themselves for the limited donor pool.

"The fact of the matter is, we don't have sustainable funding streams on the community-based organization side," says Sara Massey. She is the president of the city's chapter of Communities in Schools, a national organization that places social workers and trained counselors inside schools and connects to a variety of wraparound services — everything from eye exams to mental health counseling to finding housing. They work at many schools in New Orleans, including ReNEW Accelerated, one of the three second-chance charters.

"K-12 is insufficiently funded too, but you at least know every year in October and February you'll be funded based on headcount."

Cracks of Light

In the last few years, a loose coalition of outside donors, local advocates and education leaders have stepped up efforts to fill in the cracks for young people like Craig Adams. Part of the reason is to make the case to donors to focus on these kids.

Baptist Community Ministries, a major funder in the city, is spearheading an effort called YouthShift to measure the collective impact of youth-serving organizations by sharing data and tracking outcomes. Last summer, a group called the Partnership for Youth Development, along with Tulane's Cowen Institute, received a grant from the Aspen Institute to document the problem and find new solutions for "opportunity youth."

Tulane itself is piloting a program, called Earn and Learn, that offers participants both paid work and the opportunity to learn a technical certification. A Youth Empowerment Project pilot offers high-school-equivalency preparation, plus mentoring and social services, to youth up to age 21 directly on the campus of a high school. The idea: Students can remain engaged in the school community.

"We're trying to envision young people along their pathways from birth through adulthood," says Amy Barad, the director of the Reconnecting Opportunity Youth initiative at Tulane. "There are so many cracks between systems. And we as people analyzing these issues — sometimes to a fault — can view them as separate, and in some ways we're creating disconnections."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.