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School Choice

A New Orleans High School Where Students With Disabilities Thrive

Rahel Wondwossen has been an urban educator for 10 years. In 2010, she became the founding principal of Cohen College Prep in New Orleans, which graduated its first class last year. A native of Ethiopia, she started her teaching career in a Bronx high school as a Teach For America corps member, after her graduation from Bates College.
I met Damion three years ago when I was interviewing for my current position as principal at New Orleans Cohen College Prep. Damion and his aide were walking around the school building, working on his morning greeting. His aide would prompt him to say “Good Morning Ms. ___” when they saw other staff members and Damion would struggle to repeat the greeting. He has been diagnosed with severe autism. Today if you were to meet Damion, you would be able to communicate with him, often with eye contact. He would likely tell you hello and share with you his love of dinosaurs. His sentences are still broken, and some of his anxiety remains. But the progress he has made speaks to the hours of hard work, love and commitment that Cohen’s special education team, along with Damion and his family, have invested over the past years. Damion’s success isn’t unique in New Orleans. The news that a settlement has been reached in a lawsuit about special education students in our city is welcomed by all of us who work every day with these exceptional young people. In 2003, before Hurricane Katrina, only one in 10 children with special needs left high school with a diploma. Today, more than 40 percent of 9th graders with special needs will graduate with their peers in four years. New Orleans’ graduation rate for students with special needs now surpasses the state average. Academic achievement for students with disabilities is steadily improving. There are many challenges, but there also is a great deal of hope. The mission of Cohen College Prep—to build a high school that prepares all students for college and life success—guides our team’s work every day. Our plan for our special education population is no exception. In the 2014-15 school year, our special education population increased for the third year in a row to nearly 19 percent—higher than the national average, which has been about 13 percent for the last decade. We take every student who comes to us, and we do whatever it takes to make sure that they have the best options in life after they leave us—ranging from college success to a transition plan after graduation. As a New Orleans charter school, Cohen College Prep has the autonomy to hire a team of educators that embraces this mission and can develop innovative strategies to meet the needs of all kids. Our special education team has pushed to build the skills of Cohen’s general education teachers as they support kids in their classrooms. Our team has developed effective academic and behavior plans, provided mental health supports, and tracked academic achievement and goals of our student with disabilities with as much tenacity as we do all of our kids. We are seeing the fruits of that labor pay off. Students with disabilities who might have been written off in a different setting are getting the support they need to realize their college and life goals. Michael, who has a learning disability and was three years older than the typical student when he enrolled as a sixth grader, was able to graduate and attend a two-year college in Pennsylvania that supports his continued success and future transition to a four-year college. A current senior, Kevin, who also has autism, has the highest ACT score in his grade this year. He openly talks about the challenges he has faced with his autism, but also the love and support he has felt in our school as he begins to transition to a four-year college next year. Many students with more severe disabilities secured internships at local businesses to learn real life skills and build their resumes for when they are ready to transition out of our school community. And Cohen students who are not receiving special education services have grown to be some of the most tolerant and caring students I have ever worked with. They routinely volunteer in special-education classrooms and look after our students with more severe needs. They are protective of the Damions of our school—and they are better off for it. There is not a principal or teacher in New Orleans today who would tell you that we have it all figured out. Yet, there is little doubt that the system today is providing kids and families with better options than ever before. We must continue to take responsibility for all of our kids, use the lessons learned from schools in our city, and provide schools with the resources they need to meet the needs of every child. If we do so, New Orleans will build a school system where any student, regardless of need, can thrive.
Rahel Wondwossen has been an urban educator for 10 years. In 2010, she became the founding principal of Cohen College Prep in New Orleans, which graduated its first class last year. A native of Ethiopia, she started her teaching career in a Bronx high school as a Teach For America corps member, after her graduation from Bates College.

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