Where Opportunities are Grown

Opportunities Academy teacher Shiretha Edwards greets one of her students at his home.

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans ranked last among the state’s 67 school districts. Today, the city’s schools have seen tremendous growth thanks, in part, to BCM’s strategic grant-making which helped launch the charter school movement in Orleans Parish. In the past decade the charter movement in New Orleans has produced gains across several measures, including improved test scores.

One recipient of BCM’s educational grant-making is Collegiate Academies, a network of five high schools and two post-high school programs tailored to meet the needs of specific groups of students.

The Opportunities Academy (OA) program began as an in-classroom offering throughout the Collegiate Academies schools. Now a free program for young adults throughout the New Orleans community, not just at Collegiate Academies, OA students focus on building skills in the areas of independent living, employability, and community access through career exposure, direct instruction, hands-on activities, and more.

Shiretha delivers an “at home kit” to student Rayquan Frances.

As one of the earliest and largest supporters of Opportunities Academy, BCM was instrumental in providing not only the funding needed to scale to the size they’re at now, but also played a founding role in a comprehensive advisory council which helped to develop awareness in and access to the local community. “We don’t think we would have had the same interest in community members working with OA if the council hadn’t been set up,” said Collegiate Academies’ Director of Development, Hannah Lambert.

OA Student Rayquan Frances

Before the pandemic, OA was working with young adults to help not only prepare them for life in the “real world” but also to provide access to skills and job training in the students’ specific areas of interest. This is done through externships organized within the local community in a range of industries, including hospitality, non-profit, and tourism. When a student has a specific interest outside of the available externships, OA will work to connect students with a new program site or create internships on-site. They’ve created an on-campus coffee shop and school store called rOAst, a Reception print shop responsible for delivering supplies across campus, and a car wash business called sOAptopia. These opportunities allow students to build social skills and learn how to run every aspect of the enterprise from order taking and prepping to daily management.

Once the pandemic hit the city, OA had to quickly pivot their program to continue to provide these services in a virtual environment. BCM was able to provide one of our COVID-19 Emergency Funding Relief Grants to help supply the students with at-home kits, providing the same tactile teaching tools used in the classroom setting to each individual student in their homes.

It’s been great getting a closer glimpse into students’ lives at home and having much more direct partnerships with families has been a positive outcome,” said Lambert. “Practicing mobility at school can be different than navigating at home, where students are comfortable and familiar with the space.

Building student relationships and interpersonal career skills, such as interview practice, continues to be an important way to prep students for real life or to practice how to work through a difficult situation at jobs. Being able to continue this work even while remote has been a blessing.”