Treating a Never-Ending Epidemic

By Sam Ward

The New Orleans charter school system, which was created following hurricane Katrina as a solution to the constant problems with the previous system, has seen relative success in raising test scores and graduation rates. Although the city’s schools got the results-oriented restructuring critics hoped for, many within the new system have concerns that the mental health and treatment of students in the charter schools have not made meaningful progress. 

Brittany Brown, a mental health professional who works at JCFA-West High School as a behavioral health counselor, described the difficulties of her work following the pandemic: “The school I’m working at, [the students] are only at school for three and a half hours a day, so they’re living a twenty and a half hour day once they leave school. So you’re trying to navigate getting them to a point for them to just do school, because that’s hard enough and then, is this the place to process complex trauma, complex grief? Some of these kids are older so they’re getting into those phases where they qualify for personality disorders. It’s a hard environment to do functional mental health treatment effectively.” 

For Brown, much of her day-to-day work involves navigating the difficult aspects of students’ lives outside school, which often affects their ability to function in a school environment. “I’m not sure about other places, but I know for New Orleans in particular, by the time kids get to high school, a lot of those kids have juvenile records – they’re on probation. We have more [Probation Officers] coming into the school than anything…If I’m a kid and I know I smoked weed yesterday and my PO showed up and they have a drug testing kit in their hand, am I really ready to do algebra II?” 

Over the last half-decade New Orleans has seen an increase in crime, including violent crimes committed by juveniles. “In the past three years I’ve had five students that I worked with die to gun violence. And there’s not a conversation that occurs in terms of dealing with this stuff. We have students with armed robbery charges, attempted murder charges. I had a kid on my case load that was on probation for murder. And it’s like, what do I tell a child who’s taken a life?…But I do have the rare opportunity to sit down and get to know who that person is behind that incident. And you would be surprised by how many kids want to do better and be better but they just don’t have the tools and people around them to get there.” 

According to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a non-profit organization that compiles crime statistics throughout the country, the homicide rate in New Orleans for the first half of 2022 increased by over 100% since 2019. The increase in crime combined with an overall decrease in school attendance during and following the pandemic has certainly impacted students’ lives. 

Prior to 2019; however, a decrease in juvenile crime following the institution of charter schools did appear to occur. In a November 2022 paper written by Lan Nguyen, a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane, and Douglas Harris, the chair of the Economics Department at Tulane, there is correlational evidence of juvenile crimes decreasing from 2002 to 2018 for all except violent crimes, for which there was no significant change. 

Harris represents one of the voices strongly in favor of the shift from the pre-Katrina school system. In his 2020 book, Charter School City, Harris explains how in 2005 New Orleans had only a 56% highschool graduation rate. He describes how at one time financial mismanagement in the New Orleans public school system was so bad the federal government threatened to cut off funding and the FBI was investigating New Orleans public schools so much they had an office in the school district headquarters. “In many respects, New Orleans in 2005 looked much as it had in the 1800s,” Harris writes. 

Harris views the transition to charter schools as an overall benefit. He cites dramatic increases in test scores, highschool graduation rates, and college entry rates from 2005 to 2015 all as evidence the new system is effective in what it attempted to accomplish. Although these improvements are difficult to dispute, certain aspects of charter schools, particularly mental health treatment and resources, fail to meet students’ needs.

Catherine Bauske, a behavioral health counselor who works at Langston Hughes Academy, thinks a lot more is needed before New Orleans schools have adequate mental health services. “There’s a lack of resources and funding that goes toward mental health, and I haven’t seen any improvements in that really, maybe very slowly but we have a long way to go. Mental health is still stigmatized, as compared to medical health. If I break my arm, everybody agrees I should go to the hospital, but if I’m severely depressed it’s still somewhat considered a weakness of character or something and it’s not appropriately deemed a real health issue as it should be.”

Bauske and Brown do not work directly for the charters their respective schools operate under. Instead, they are employed by Communities in Schools of the Gulf South, which is a nonprofit that helps find places for licensed counselors in charters throughout New Orleans. Communities in Schools (CIS) is the largest organization providing mental health services in Orleans Parish. 

 “CIS brings in programming that sponsors certain families who may require help with basic needs. If a family needs food, we provide that, or we help provide uniforms. We have mental health services, providing counseling to certain kids, often dealing with things as they come up like any crises we [will] respond to,” said Bauske. 

Common focuses of the mental health treatment that both counselors provide include the devastations of violence and poverty, on top of the effects of the hurricanes that come through town semi-annually. For Bauske, “Trauma is a big one, and trauma can be anything from natural disasters, community violence, homelessness, any sort of major rattle to your system. Grief and loss is a big one. Poverty is a big one, which is why we spend so much time providing basic needs.” 

The trauma that arises from contact with violence and death is an incredible hardship on mental health, particularly for children who are only beginning to fully comprehend their situations. Working with younger kids, Bauske deals regularly with students who experienced some form of loss. “It seems like the young ones do understand [loss], they just may not know how to process it. A lot of times it comes up as anger, because it’s not fair for a young person to understand loss, so there’s some anger that arises from the unfairness.” However, she continues with a more hopeful attitude, “They’re also extremely strong. And community is so huge here, family and community. Their ability to come together is so important and admirable.”

Helping young students work through communication issues is key. As Bauske observes, “Part of working with the younger ones is just teaching them an emotional vocabulary, so they can put a word to their feelings and can communicate it. Maybe I’m misbehaving in class and they think I’m just choosing to misbehave but really I’m grieving the loss of my grandmother and I just don’t know how to say that I’m grieving.”

Increasing a child’s ability to understand and communicate their feelings regarding grief, loss and potential trauma is a major goal of the mental health counseling both counselors provide on a weekly basis. 

Dr. Brooke Grant, a Senior Professor of Practice in the Pre-K-12 Education Programs at Tulane University, described the difficulty in getting students to talk about mental health issues: “You know the little ones don’t know how to communicate…they might not have the words. So it comes out different ways. Whereas older kids, they have an image to protect. So they don’t have the words just because they don’t want to say the words.”

The importance of community that Catherine Bauske emphasized exists for teachers as well. Dr. Grant runs Social Studies NOLA and is a program director for AfterClass, both of which are New Orleans based organizations designed to offer teachers a wide variety of resources. For Dr. Grant, “That’s one of the reasons why we started AfterClass, so the teachers have a space to come and collaborate with one another, even though they are from different places…one of the things they like is the community.”

Community; however, suffered in the switch to the charter school system. Bauske noticed this impact in several ways. “The charter schools aren’t neighborhood based, and that creates a level of disconnect in some ways, because you’re not necessarily in your own community … Their bus rides are really long sometimes, which can affect attendance.” 

Brown, who grew up in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, also noticed some of the negative side effects this aspect of charter schools creates. “I knew all the kids in my neighborhood when I was a kid, because we all went to school together. I knew my friends’ parents. And now we have a child who lives in Michoud, who’s going all the way to Algiers to go to Alice Hart. It’s like, your child is on a bus at 7:00 a.m. because the parents want them to go to a school that’s rated higher but they’re the only kid in their neighborhood who goes to that school and the culture’s different. So where does that leave that child – they’re lost at school.”

Desantos Manning, a lifelong New Orleans resident whose two kids attended school in New Orleans both before and after Katrina, was also quick to point out the problems that can arise for kids in non-local schools. “That’s one of the biggest problems with the charters…for example, now you’re coming from uptown and you have to fight because the kids from across the river don’t like the kids from uptown, so you gotta fight to defend yourself everyday you go to school.”

Another aspect of the charter system that brought unintended consequences was the increase in young, inexperienced teachers that came with the new goals of the charters. Additionally, many of these teachers came from outside New Orleans looking for work and to help out following Katrina. “A lot of the kids can’t connect with their teachers anymore. It’s hard to reach a kid if they think you’re just here for the short term and won’t understand what they’re going through because you’re only stopping by in their eyes,” notes Manning. 

In many ways charter organizations act as businesses, and businesses require results to stay open and thrive. Once the switch occurred after Katrina, more and more of the older teachers were either pushed out of schools or left willingly. Compared to other states’ public school systems, charters have little duty to hold onto teachers who are not getting measurable results. The old guard of teachers were often replaced with young transplants to New Orleans who were motivated to achieve certain test scores. While this transition produced results, it sacrificed many aspects of community as older teachers with deep roots in the community left the profession. 

Brown has seen the consequences of this shift first-hand and is concerned about the experience of students today compared to when she was a student in New Orleans. “When I was in school, most of my teachers were older. You had older teachers who were often from your community. Like, I couldn’t go to school and be bad, or they’d come home and tell on me. So there’s that aspect of it and [now] you have a classroom full of strangers and kids who don’t even speak your language, because we all know New Orleanians speak a very different language depending on where you’re from.”

Brown also noticed how operating schools as businesses can replace an emphasis on the well-being of students with the concrete needs of the charter organization. “My schools were community schools, I still talk to some of my highschool teachers…but these places are businesses. If you ever work in a charter school the most important thing you’ll hear is 10-1. 10-1, 10-1, 10-1. That’s when your head count goes into the state to release your funding. You have X amount of children [and] that’s worth these amount of dollars.” 

External organizations such as nonprofits supplying mental health resources are one solution to this disconnect. “One reason I like working for CIS is because I’m not working directly for the charter. Because a lot of times with counselors who work under the charter, they end up getting looped into academic counseling and attendance, so they don’t even get to treat mental health,” said Brown. Yet relying on nonprofits to support and treat as extensive a problem as mental health in the schools seems like using a bandaid for a broken leg. 

A lack of sufficient mental health support for children is not just a New Orleans or Louisiana phenomena. However, in New Orleans the need for increased help is pervasive. For the mental health professionals doing their part, such as Bauske, it is obvious there is much more to be done. “There’s three of us here with 750 kids and we’re one of the luckier schools. A lot of schools don’t have one mental health professional … I have hope that they’re working on mental health. But there needs to be more. There needs to be more social workers and counselors in schools.”

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