New Orleans

J’Remi Barnes locks the door behind him as he steps into the squat, three-bedroom duplex his family rents in New Orleans East. In the living room, a few half-packed boxes are scattered in preparation for a move his mom hopes to make to a safer neighborhood—once she finds a place. A fatal shooting occurred recently in an empty lot behind the duplex.

“I have my ticket out—my ticket to like a better life. That’s college,” J’Remi says, framed by photos of him, his three brothers, and his mother hanging on the wall. “I don’t even have to come back after college. I mean, I am, but I don’t have to deal with this for another four years at least.”

A recent graduate of New Orleans’ Sci Academy, J’Remi, 18, is among the post-Katrina swell of poor, African-American students who are going to college at a higher rate than before the storm. Many credit the city’s surge of college-prep, “no excuses” charter schools with propelling growing numbers of students into higher education, some, like J’Remi, who had never imagined themselves going to college.

J’Remi’s wearing a red T-shirt that says Grinnell College, the small liberal arts school in Iowa he’ll be attending this fall on full scholarship. He excitedly describes a course on censorship he wants to take, his energetic gestures out of harmony with the soft instrumental music coming from the Skyrim video game he’s put on pause.

“The government censors what you say in other countries,” J’Remi explains. “And that sounds interesting to me because I like talking a lot.”

Itinerant Life

J’Remi has never been to Iowa, or anywhere, really, beyond New Orleans and the subsequent storm-spurred stints that took his family to Texas and Georgia.

He was 8 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. His mom, who works as a card dealer at a local casino, had taken her sons to Texas before the storm made landfall, but several of his family members stayed behind. His grandfather had a heart attack and died in the throes of the hurricane and a house fire that was sparked by an uncovered electrical box.

Over the next three years, J’Remi moved among four towns in Georgia, changing schools with each move.

His family came home to New Orleans in 2008, where J’Remi landed at the Milestone Sabis Academy, a middle school housed across the river in Jefferson Parish. His older brother, Eddie, enrolled at Sci Academy, one school in a small charter network of three called Collegiate Academies that would soon establish a reputation for pulling academically lagging kids up to, and above, grade level. J’Remi followed him there a few years later.

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J'Remi Barnes waits for the bus during one of his last weeks as a senior at Sci Academy. He's headed to Iowa's Grinnell College on a full scholarship.
--Swikar Patel/Education Week

“He came in very tiny and very goofy,” says Jon Bogard, J’Remi’s adviser and teacher. He was smart, Bogard says, ahead of a lot of his peers. He exerted himself as little as possible, still managing to earn decent grades.

But Bogard saw a powerful magnetism in J’Remi. He knew with high expectations that J’Remi would flourish.

On a freshman field trip to Tulane University at the beginning of the school year, Bogard labored over creating a cheer for his group of students, including J’Remi, that they would chant together in a spirit competition. “And I remember spending the night before coming up with the chant and having this moment of terror before teaching it to the boys,” Bogard says. “What happens if they don’t join in?”

It was also Bogard’s first year at Sci Academy, and he had no idea what to expect. He had arrived in New Orleans two years before as a Teach For America recruit, fresh out of Brown University.

But J’Remi jumped right in, “zealously,” as Bogard describes it, shouting the chant at the top of his lungs, rallying the group.

They won the competition.

The educators at Sci Academy—many of them imports to New Orleans—make it their mission to fire students up about going to college.

The school has been held up both as an example of post-Katrina successes and failures. It was recognized by Oprah Winfrey for its track record in boosting academic achievement for poor, black students. It’s also been singled out in community protests over its high suspension rates.

Sci is the classic college-prep, no-excuses charter school—one where toeing the line is not just a figure of speech. Lowerclassmen at Sci Academy are expected to walk along lines taped on the ground, one of many rules J’Remi says he initially chafed under. “It was just like, ‘Why am I walking the lines again? Am I in jail?’ ”

In schools like Sci, “scholars” are often required to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, lock their elbows when they raise their hands, “track” or follow the teacher with their eyes at all times, and snap their fingers after a fellow scholar answers a question correctly.

Strict rules, Sci leaders say, undergird its academic success.

Adhering to the Rules

Until recently, failure to adhere to Sci Academy’s long list of directives—as well as more serious infractions such as fighting—often led to out-of-school suspensions or even expulsion. In 2012-13, the school posted a nearly 60 percent suspension rate. J’Remi was sent home for two days for using bad language.

And the school came under fire for some of those policies, despite the academic gains its students were making.

But the issue is not unique to Sci Academy: Exclusionary discipline, as it’s called, had become a major cause for concern citywide.

The reasons behind such high rates of out-of-school punishment are more nuanced than breaking strict rules, says Joshua Perry, the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, the state’s public defender for juveniles. Among them, he says, is a tendency to disproportionately discipline African-American students for normal teenage behavior. Another is teacher inexperience.

“You have a lot of teachers who are just young, and green, and not that well trained to respond to difficult classroom situations, [and] who don’t appreciate exactly what they’re doing when they put kids out of school,” Perry says.

Students who are suspended or expelled are less likely to graduate and more likely to end up in jail, he says.

Exclusionary discipline practices have been a major challenge for the city’s system of independent schools, although expulsions from any public school—which are much less frequent—are now handled by a special citywide office.

Suspension policies, however, are still handled at the school level. And some, including Sci Academy, have started taking steps to drive down the rates at which they send students home for misbehavior. Now, at Sci, students are sent to an in-school suspension center where they continue their studies and are counseled by specialized staff.

“I think the suspension rate was sending a message that we actually didn’t want to serve all the kids. We were like, that’s not OK,” says Rhonda Dale, Sci Academy’s principal. “We don’t want parents and community members thinking of us in that way.”

The school all but eliminated out-of-school suspensions in 2014-15, but it came at a high cost: $300,000 that the school had to raise to pay for the in-school suspension center mostly through grants.

But the moves to curb discipline have received mixed reviews. “Honestly, when I stopped suspending children, I had a lot of parents who came in and said, ‘Wait, I want a school that’s really strict—that’s why I sent my kid here,’ ” says Dale.

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J'Remi Barnes works on his senior project with Sci Academy teacher Spencer Sherman.
--Swikar Patel/Education Week

And for all its work around school suspensions, Sci Academy still enforces a strict code of conduct—an environment that some parents, educators, and charter school critics believe stifles students’ creativity and disregards local culture and values.

One veteran educator, Principal Mary Laurie, says at L.B. Landry-O.P. Walker High School on the city’s West Bank of the Mississippi River, out-of-school suspensions have always been a rarely used form of discipline at her school.

“It’s crucial that cultures are respected,” she says, “so that our children see they’re being respected, so parents feel they are respected, so the great city of New Orleans is respected.”

But J’Remi believes the no-excuses culture at Sci Academy is what got him into college.

A Brother’s Lost Opportunity

J’Remi hears his mom pull into the driveway and shoots up off the couch to help her carry his 4-week-old nephew into the house. Eddie Barnes, J’Remi’s older brother, is the baby’s father. Eddie, who graduated from Sci Academy in 2012, had moved to Vermont to attend Middlebury College on scholarship. But overcome with homesickness, he didn’t last there for long, J’Remi says.

Now, Eddie is working two jobs and living with J’Remi, their mother, and two younger brothers, ages 10 and 13. They don’t see much of their father, even though he lives in New Orleans. Once competitors to be the ‘it’ guy at Sci Academy, the two older brothers have been having a lot of heart-to-hearts lately as J’Remi prepares to leave for Grinnell.

I don’t want to get a college education and leave; I want to leave an impression on Grinnell. J’REMI BARNES, Sci Academy Class of 2015

“Yeah, he told me to take advantage of support systems out there,” J’Remi says. “He’s like making mistakes for me. I’m learning from his things. … He’s like, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I love my son, but don’t do what I did.’ ”

If J’Remi makes it at Grinnell, he will be defying the odds painted by national statistics: only about 10 percent of low-income, first-generation college students earn a degree.

As more New Orleans students were getting accepted to college, charter school leaders realized that getting them into a university was only half the battle and that they were perhaps losing the second half.

Cohen College Prep in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood—home to some of the most violent crime in the city—had the third-highest college enrollment rate in New Orleans in 2013-14. It trailed only two of the city’s selective-admissions high schools, where the student bodies are much more racially mixed and serve fewer students from poor families.

Like many of its charter school brethren, Cohen plasters university posters and pennants in its hallways. But its commitment to getting students into—and through—college runs much deeper.

Seventy-eight percent of Cohen’s first graduating class went to college, many of them the first in their families to do so.

Class of 2015 Cohen College Prep graduates celebrate their college acceptances.

The school created an alumni-director position to act as a surrogate helicopter parent for all its first-generation college-goers. That relationship starts in high school and continues for years beyond.

The alumni director helps families fill out federal financial aid forms, checks in with students throughout the summer, visits every campus where a Cohen graduate is a student, and is on call throughout the school year to help them navigate college life and academics.

The school also helps students cover expenses such as books, winter coats, or even plane tickets home, seemingly small challenges that can derail some students.

“Let’s say mom is sick,” explains Rahel Wondwossen, Cohen’s principal. “They buy a one-way ticket, and now, they don’t have the other $150 or whatever to get home, and so they miss the rest of the semester, they get dropped from their financial aid. A lot of the barriers for our kids are not these huge expenses.”

J’Remi will have similar supports through a Posse Scholarship—which will also cover his tuition. But perhaps more importantly, he’ll have the support of nine other New Orleans graduates who are headed to Grinnell with J’Remi, as part of the Posse Scholarship program for urban students with academic and leadership potential but not necessarily stellar academic backgrounds. Posse staff members keep tabs on their students much the same way Cohen’s alumni director does.

As the start of classes approach, J’Remi wavers between excitement and anxiety. He’s plotting how to make a name for himself at Grinnell.

“That’s how it was at Sci. Even if you didn’t know me, you knew of me,” he says. “I don’t want to get a college education and leave, I want to leave an impression on Grinnell. I just want to be a positive influence to some people. I mean, don’t we all?”

But J’Remi’s also realistic about how tough the transition will be, a lesson he knows from his brother’s experience at Middlebury. He knows the rigors of college might really test him. The workload will be more demanding than high school. He’s worried his little brothers won’t do their homework without him there to prod them. And there will be no week off for Mardi Gras.

Sci Academy could only prepare him so much, J’Remi says.

“They can’t teach you to not be homesick.”

Aside from his weekly Posse Scholar meetings, J’Remi’s found his own ways to make sure he’s ready for Grinnell. He’s been shopping for new clothes, spending the money he saved from graduations gifts and playing piano at church services.

J’Remi had been saving the money to get a driver’s license, but decided that new clothes were more important.

A sharp wardrobe, he told his best friend, who will attend Louisiana State University, trumps all else.

“We have to go shopping before we go to college,” J’Remi says. “We have to reinvent ourselves.”