SWNP funding fuels key supports and opportunities for students; round two of funding can drive more essential collaboration 

The Systemwide Needs Program (SWNP) is a citywide fund that was written into law by the Louisiana Legislature in 2019. It is run by NOLA-PS and the Orleans Parish School Board and goes towards student needs that are most efficiently and effectively addressed across our entire school system instead of in a single school. It funds programs and initiatives that would be particularly difficult for individual schools to manage alone. SWNP’s first round of funding had two focus areas: teacher talent work, and specialized programs and supports. As OPSB and NOLA-PS prepare to decide on the priorities for their second round of funding, we see an opportunity to continue existing work and expand other system wide initiatives, such as career training programs, and programs for students who have just arrived in this country and/or are learning English. 

SWNP funds unique educational programs for students across the system The new NOLA-PS superintendent, Dr. Avis Williams, has named wellness and mental health a priority, and over the past three years, SWNP’s funding for specialized programs has increased students’ access to mental and behavioral supports. The SWNP funded training for school staff on trauma-informed practices. It also funded transitional education programs like the Travis Hill schools, which educate students who are incarcerated, and the Center for Resilience, a therapeutic day treatment program which educates students while providing the intensive mental health supports they need and deserve.

It’s important that these programs have the resources they need to be strong and comprehensive. They need to be able to provide a high-quality academic program and support students with diverse learning needs in addition to behavioral and mental health needs. 

Another example of this type of program is the Bridge, which educates middle school students who have been expelled from school or who have been referred for continued behavioral struggles. Instead of simply attending another traditional school, or growing disconnected from school entirely, these students learn in a restorative environment where they can develop strategies to help them succeed in their next school. The Bridge educates between 30-40 students each year in small classes of five to eight students with a counselor in each room. Students receive strong social-emotional and mental health interventions in addition to the differentiated academic programming they need to to stay on their grade level. 

New Orleans’ expulsion rate is significantly lower than in many cities nationwide, and the district importantly requires students who have been expelled to have a supportive school to attend each day during their expulsion period. New Orleans is a national leader in this work. At NSNO, we know programs like the Bridge can help students reset, stay engaged, and change their educational trajectory. It’s one of many resources we have as a community to keep children safe and on track to reach their dreams. It’s also expensive. The Bridge needs funding from the SWNP in order to operate—they received a crucial $950,000 for this year. 

“Our students come from all across our school system, and we love and believe in them. Because of funding from the Systemwide Needs Program, we can offer students small class sizes and personalized attention while also meeting their mental health and social-emotional needs with a counselor in each classroom. This allows them to thrive both with us and when they return to their home school or matriculate into high school,” explains Elizabeth Ostberg, CEO of Educators for Quality Alternatives, which runs the Bridge.

Adjusting our system to meet our students’ needs: mental healthcare, career and technical education, and support for students learning English

Our system will continue to need programs and services like the Bridge that focus on students’ mental health alongside their education. We can also invest in other programs that meet the changing needs and priorities of our community. 

We’ve seen a growing interest across our schools and among our students in career and technical education (CTE) alongside their focus on college readiness. Students at many New Orleans schools earn certifications in areas such as healthcare and engineering through partnerships with nonprofits like the New Orleans Career Center and also pursue college credits simultaneously through dual enrollment initiatives. As our local industries and employers seek to fill good, high-paying jobs in coming years, the SWNP could help increase access to career and technical education training so more students graduate with stronger options for their future. It could also decrease the burden of debt students take on with future education.

In recent years, we’ve also had an increased number of students in our district who are new to this country and learning English. Today, around 8% of New Orleans students are English Language Learners—about 3,000 young people. At NSNO, we hear from schools that they are eager to meet these students’ needs, but it is difficult to do so alone. They’ve told us that this is especially true in high schools, where there are fewer years left to help students learn a new language and adjust to a new home before it’s time for them to graduate. To address these needs, schools are hiring more bilingual educators and connecting with outside nonprofits who can support young people’s transition to this country. But hiring these new educators can be expensive, and it is sometimes difficult to find enough teachers with the language expertise schools need.

Our networks are getting creative and responding in powerful ways. One example of this is Las Sierras, which is run by Collegiate Academies. Las Sierras educates Collegiate Academies high school students who are new to this country. It is a transitional education program where they can learn English while working toward grade level standards in this specific, highly supportive context. Because it is focused specifically on newcomer students, Las Sierras’ staff has the capacity to grow true expertise on how best to help students navigate what can be a complex time of adjustment. Las Sierras can hire a concentrated team of educators and students can receive the personalized experience they deserve. If a program like Las Sierras chose to expand to more schools and networks citywide, the SWNP could be an important resource for supporting them. 

Support for English learners—newcomers in particular—and initiatives in CTE are just two ideas among others that schools have brought up as opportunities for SWNP funding. Our city has many programs and initiatives like the Bridge and Las Sierras that are already making a difference. With increased funding, these programs could serve many more students. They support young people in ways that are hard for an individual school to do alone—both in terms of resources and specialized expertise. They are also an investment in the city’s future, providing the supports that can lead to better outcomes and safer, brighter futures for some of our most vulnerable students.

We know that each school in our district is focused on providing a great education and creating the most supportive, loving environment they can for their children. The SWNP provides an opportunity to help schools do this by stepping in with system wide support for some of the most complex or expensive needs schools and their students have. We hope the SWNP will continue to fund teacher talent and specialized programs with a focus on mental healthcare. By investing in opportunities for students by bolstering career and technical education and supporting students who are new to this country and learning English, the SWNP can further expand equity and access in our city. 

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