Community IMPACT Series: New Orleans Outreach, March 30, 2010

New Orleans, LA – Teachers, staff and school leaders aren't the only ones making a difference in the promising new realm of public education in New Orleans. Every day, local residents from all walks of life are leading after-school classes, enrichment programs, tutoring sessions and workshops in art, music, writing, life skills and more. And many of them are making these contributions thanks to New Orleans Outreach.

"I've always thought many, many people want to help public schools but they literally don't know what door to knock on," says Claudia Barker, executive director of New Orleans Outreach. "So we show them the way and we make it possible for them to feel comfortable and for the schools to feel comfortable welcoming them knowing that they have the best interests of their kids at heart."

New Orleans Outreach has been around since 1993, and its job is to link the larger community's skills, talents and impulse to help with the needs of local public schools. Outreach works with six to eight schools per year, and has a coordinator at each partner school to make sure adult community members and students get the most from the relationship. It trains volunteers to work with young people, and it also provides paying jobs to artists and others leading some of its programs.

In addition to working with individuals, Outreach forms partnership with other local groups. One example is Young Aspirations / Young Artists, better known as YAYA, a nonprofit that teaches artistic and entrepreneurial skills to young people. YAYA executive director Baty Landis explains the connection with schools:

"We have always taught young people with the idea that they'd then be able to give back to the community, and what we've been able to do through the partnership with New Orleans Outreach is in fact to recycle that success. So kids who come up through the public schools, and now the charter schools system, and have been training intensively with YAYA during their high school years have the opportunity once they graduate to become mentors and teachers back in the school system."

In this way, YAYA is helping bring much-needed art programming back to public schools and it's also providing valuable mentors to students.

"There's a sense of realness, where our teaching artists know what their students are going through because they've been there very recently," Landis says.

The subject matter itself isn't the only reward for students involved in these programs. Participation in after-school programs can lead to better attendance, fewer discipline problems and better academic success in general. The enrichment program can become a hook, Landis explains, something that truly engages students with their school careers and their communities.

"Eventually, hopefully, we can develop that hook for every kid in school and keep every kid in school because that's the goal really, to ensure a successful academic experience," Landis says.

That hook can take many different forms, from visual arts and dance to robotics and rocketry, from horticulture and cooking to intramural sports. That's the reason why Outreach casts a wide net for its instructors, tutors and volunteers. And students aren't the only ones getting something out of this. People involved with Outreach have the chance to participate in the historic reformation of a public school system, and Claudia Barker says sometimes they discover untapped talents for teaching within themselves.

"Anything that you can do, think and create is something that students would love to learn," she says. "Artists, musicians, writers, scientists, tutors, anybody can help students learn and we would really like to give folks that opportunity."