A dozen black angel figurines were the only undamaged items Melrose Biagas found in her office after the levee breaks in 2005. Now those angelic faces watch over her from a new bookcase at James Singleton Charter School, where she directs the education of over 700 students, many still traumatized by the loss of family members, homes and personal possessions.
Singleton Charter, operated by the Dryades YMCA, is located in Central City, an area so named because of its central location between downtown and Uptown New Orleans. Even though the area is bounded by the oak-lined affluence of St. Charles Avenue, it’s still beaten down by the devastation brought by Katrina and the social ills that accompany poverty. Central City has more than its share of crime, litter and abandoned buildings. Its children suffer the consequences.
“This is a job you can’t really prepare for,” Biagas says, “You just have to experience it. I need more guardian angels than ever now.”
And those angels, in human form, are everywhere. As New Orleans’ plight becomes more well known, grants are pouring into the Dryades YMCA, a longtime hub of black culture and job training that goes back to the days of segregation. That history brings regular visits from prominent national figures such as former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and actor Danny Glover. Glover, who has starred in such films as The Color Purple, Lethal Weapon and Dreamgirls, made his second visit to the school on Valentine’s Day. He stayed most of the day and drew a crowd of over 400 people to a community gathering that evening.
Glover’s association with the Algebra Project, a national program that trains math teachers, brought him to Singleton as part of the program’s efforts to make Singleton a “model” school, says David Dennis, an Algebra Project coordinator. The Algebra Project won a three-year National Science Foundation award last year to develop materials for Algebra I. It is sharing those materials with Singleton and a few other New Orleans schools.
Glover’s influence at Singleton is considerable, Dennis says, especially with male students. “I think he is a big motivating factor. When they see a celebrity of Glover’s status, they feel important and they begin to believe in themselves.”
Like all New Orleans schools, Singleton Charter is expected to improve student performance during a time of great domestic upheaval for many of the students under its care. Some live in shelters with teenaged siblings because their parents are still displaced; a few have been discovered living in the back seats of cars, Biagas says. They live in an area in which crime became so alarming that the Dryades YMCA started holding midnight basketball games because police said midnight is when most crimes occur.
Singleton Charter, however, isn’t new to educating students with problems. In the 1990s, the YMCA conducted an alternative school setting for students who were expelled from other schools. After awhile, the organization convinced the Orleans Parish School Board to allow it to operate a separate middle school for them named after former City Councilman James Singleton, who’s a long-time board member of the Dryades YMCA. It was one of the first charter schools in New Orleans.
“It was like a swing[ing] door,” Biagas says. “The students kept coming back here. That’s why they decided to do a charter and keep them.”
But the school has grown considerably since then. Its pre-Katrina enrollment of 120 has increased to 712 – 12 students over its enrollment cap. There is always a waiting list, Biagas says. Singleton’s population swelled after the storm because it was one of the first two schools to open on the East bank of New Orleans. Students now come from as far as the West Bank to attend school in five permanent buildings and three portable buildings, located in and around the Oretha Castle Haley YMCA site.
The enormity of the challenge is difficult for non-educators to grasp. When the school opened, administrators had no student folders to determine grade levels and the students had lost months of instruction. Even more difficult is the emotional devastation, Biagas says. Families have been torn apart and scattered all over the country. Many parents have divorced, leaving their children even more distraught.
Fortunately, Biagas has two full-time social workers to help deal with these issues, a luxury she didn’t have before the storm when she was principal of William Guste school, then operated by the New Orleans Parish School Board. The school board provided Guste with only a part-time school worker and requesting additional help for troubled kids was a slow process that required paperwork and patience, she says. Now, as a principal of a charter, Biagas has the budgetary freedom to hire has many social workers as she deems necessary.
This flexibility also allowed her to help a student’s family whose house burned down recently. “We were able to find them housing in a week’s time,” she says.
Such autonomy has also allowed the school to deal with students’ academic gaps more readily, Biagas says. To help them catch up, Singleton offers extended school hours, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturday school and after school tutoring. The school also puts as many as two teachers’ aides into each classroom to give students more one-on-one help. “I couldn’t afford that in the traditional system,” she says.
Another program was designed to encourage good behavior by awarding “Singleton bucks” for appropriate behavior. The students redeem this paper money for school supplies such as pens and pencils. A few times a year their “bucks” go into a lottery. If their number is called, they win big prizes such as iPods and bicycles.
Biagas says she sees the difference in student performance already. “I see signs of progress. We have high attendance. It’s like a family here. The kids don’t want to go home.”