NEW ORLEANS — LeShantea Jackson carefully poured steaming water over the coffee grounds, her gaze fixed on the swirling pattern. Consulting a laminated list of steps, she next poured the coffee in a cup, added milk and handed it to Robert Jones, who put the coffee in a cardboard holder for delivery.

In the courtyard outside, a group of students vacuumed and washed cars with sudsy sponges. A few hallways over, others wiped windows and swept floors, some of their hands gently guided by job coaches. In a model apartment upstairs, students practiced making beds.

Such are the lessons at Opportunities Academy, a Collegiate Academies charter school in New Orleans’ Central City. It serves about 70 students ages 18-22 with a range of intellectual disabilities and autism, helping them grow toward independence. Students learn skills and gain work experience as they strive toward goals tailored to individual pupils and their abilities.

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The school grew out of a program at Abramson Sci Academy, and was granted its own charter in 2019. It’s the only tuition-free program of its kind in the New Orleans area, and one of few across Louisiana. Last year the school was awarded the top honor, the Distinguished Merit Award, from the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs.

“We’re in it everyday, and we in this building know we’re doing something special,” said Sophia Scott, executive director of Opportunities Academy. “But it feels good to have people outside the building know that too.”

Nominating the school for the award were Mayor LaToya Cantrell and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.

“They are extraordinarily deserving of the award,” Cantrell said. “The school has expanded the educational opportunities for young people with disabilities in New Orleans, transforming the lives of the students and families they serve.”

On a recent morning, students practiced identifying their birthdays on a calendar and naming days of the week.

Then they headed to their internships, working a variety of jobs at the on-site coffee shop, called rOAst, and the car wash, called sOAptopia, or performing tasks around the school. Before the pandemic, students worked at internships outside of the school, including at the Superdome assisting the custodial team. Just like a regular job, students clock in and out, submit timesheets, abide by the dress code and are paid $8 an hour.

Opportunities Academy is reimbursed for some students by Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, part of the state Labor Department; the school covers the cost of teaching other students from its share of education tax revenue.

The school spends $40,000 to $45,000 per student, said Davis Zaunbrecher, chief strategy officer of Collegiate Academies. Other Collegiate Academies high schools spend about $15,000 per student, a figure that is on the “high end for schools citywide because of the scale of our special education programming for our students with disabilities.”

“Skills to live their fullest lives”

Walking through the school in the afternoon, one might find students brushing their teeth or washing their faces, folding clothes, learning how to read and pay bills or preparing for a job interview. Sessions also teach such independent living skills as how to use public transportation, Scott said.

Physical therapists and occupational therapists help students throughout the day, and some use the laboratory upstairs to fine-tune their tactile and motor skills.

“There are academic elements woven in, but it is really about transition and making sure they have the skills to live their fullest lives after they graduate and after they leave the public school system,” said Davis Zaunbrecher, a spokesperson for the school.

More than 20% of students at Collegiate Academies high schools have disabilities. About 13% of students enrolled in Orleans Parish public schools have an individualized education program, a level on par with public school systems across the United States, said Taslin Alfonzo, a spokesperson for NOLA Public Schools.

Students come from a number of local high schools to Opportunities Academy, where they may stay until they are 22. Scott said the school does not turn away any student who meets the requirements set by the state.

Navigating a complex system

Before students leave, Opportunities Academy helps set them up with agencies such as the Metropolitan Human Services District and Louisiana Rehabilitation Services to make easier the next steps of the complex world of support for adults with disabilities.

At rOAst, the orders come through sporadically from teachers and staff. As Miguel Laurent stirred a bowl of trail mix, he excitedly peppered Kathleen Coverick, the director of finance and operations, with questions about an upcoming basketball pep rally.

Laurent said he planned to spend his paycheck on a full plate of ribs at Texas Roadhouse, his favorite restaurant.

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