Elizabeth Ostberg is the Co-Founder & Executive Director at The NET Charter High School, an alternative school for students ages 15 through 21.
A month or so ago now, my student Kiontay summed up one of the things that makes me really proud of our school. “They don’t judge you by your past,” she said. “They try to give you a chance, and make you feel like yes, you do have a chance in life. You came from a hard place, a hard rock, but you do have a chance and you can’t give up now—it’s never too late.”
She’s right. As the Executive Director of the NET, an alternative school for students 15-21 years old, I believe deeply in the young people I work with. They are tenacious, creative, brilliant, and loving. They work incredibly hard and have bold visions for bright futures. They also face significant challenges inside and outside of the classroom. Many of our students work long hours before or after school, or have families to take care of. Over a fifth are court-involved. Around a quarter are homeless, and another quarter are parents or pregnant. Ninety-two percent are overage for their grade. Many have different learning needs and more than half struggle with behavioral or mental health challenges. Often these things make it hard to show up to school every day or make it hard to navigate the school day with ease. But they are also why our staff and I feel privileged to be a part of these students’ journeys.
The NET has expanded in recent years—today, we educate 325 students across two campuses—one in Central City and another in Gentilly. Our students earn Louisiana High School diplomas, and participate in internships across New Orleans, learning professional skills and making local connections. Our classrooms are both rigorous and supportive, built around students’ own interests and needs. We use restorative practices and a trauma-informed approach to help our students thrive.
We’re always improving our schools by learning from students themselves. I recently had the chance to sit down with a group of our students and discuss the aspects of our model they value most. I want to share some of their reflections, because I believe that in the broader dialogue on education, the voices of young people are the most important of all. As a school leader, I am proud to amplify them here.
Some of our students talked about the NET’s small community as a lever for deep connection and powerful instruction:
Jenny: “Most of the students here have outside things that hinder them from completely being present at a traditional school, and what makes the NET different is that it’s smaller—it’s more individualized. So there are stronger relationships, and it’s the flexibility that lets you navigate the things going on outside of school while having the opportunity to graduate.”
Kolbie : “I connect with a lot of the teachers…I feel like since it’s smaller here, teachers get to know you better…they really care about what you learn.”
Students also talked to me about aspects of our academic model that appealed to them—like the personalized, project based learning:
David: “We have exhibitions—we have a big project to explain what we’re doing so far in class. So far, I have an animation project about the play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Every class has a theme, focusing on interests and meeting the standard as well.”
Other students talked about the importance of their teachers getting to know them and showing they care:
Ja’Naria: “Each student has a relationship with a teacher…they take what we say seriously and don’t just put what we say to the side.”
Kiontay: “They care about personal issues. The teachers have a big ol’ group chat and if you’re having a personal issue, they’ll text the group chat saying if somebody is down, and they pull you out and help you with it…they help you try and get through the day.”
I think that all schools—whether they are alternative or traditional—can benefit from these students’ insights. It is important to build relationships with our young people. It is important to make a classroom feel small, even if a school or a community is large. It’s important to make learning come alive and connect academics to the real world. It is necessary that we show students they matter to us as people, beyond their grades and their test scores.
As we begin 2019, I will continue to lean on the expertise of our students. I believe that the more I listen to young leaders like Kiontay, David, Jenny, Ja’Naria, and Kolbie, the stronger the NET, and eventually our city, will become.
Photo credit: Kolbie N, 12th grade, the NET Charter High School