This New Orleans school has redefined what success looks like

Opportunities Academy is a post-secondary school that caters to and empowers students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Step into one of the classrooms at Opportunities Academy (OA) in New Orleans and you'd be forgiven for thinking you took a wrong turn into a coffee shop. A setup for pour-overs, commercial-grade espresso maker, and a French Press is in one corner, with student baristas bustling about, while another student sits at the register, ready to accept payment for your cold brew.

Called rOAst, it's a student-run coffee shop on three Collegiate Academies campuses, designed to give students real-world experiences in customer service, register operations, and food and beverage techniques. It's just one of the innovative ways OA wants to prepare their students for life after the classroom.

OA, part of charter network Collegiate Academies, is a post-secondary day program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program enrolls students between 18 and 22 with the goal of teaching them skills to live on their own. That often includes mastering basic tasks that many of us take for granted, like riding the bus, doing laundry, or filling out job applications.

a student at OA Paul, a student at OA, has a part-time internship at the public library. "I like being able to dress professional," he says. (Photo: Lindsey Reynolds)

"It's crucial to have concrete volunteer experience or job opportunities," explains James Lukens, the Academy’s executive director. "We want our whole environment to be built around students, rather than built around what a school should be."

OA's classroom structure is also unconventional. Students participate in internships and externships at Collegiate schools and off-campus at community businesses (Starbucks, local restaurants, and public libraries are a few places that have hired students).

The school also has an off-site house, called "The Oasis," that lets students experience independent living and try out household skills in-person, like making a sandwich, hanging up clothes, or meeting your neighbors.

"Our program serves some of the most diverse students in New Orleans, from those on the autism spectrum to students with cerebral palsy," explains Lukens.

Around twenty percent of the school's students have a physical disability, so movement classes that incorporate innovative physical therapy are also part of the day's activities. There's also community trips to the movies or museums, to create social bonds between students and encourage interactions outside of school. Another priority is long-term employment pathways for students.

family celebrates graduation A student and his family celebrate his recent graduation from OA in June. (Photo: Opportunities Academy)

"We have a graduation plan for each student," Lukens says. "We meet with their family and education team and show them the agencies and networks we've connected their student with...showing them volunteer opportunities, part-time, and full-time...it varies widely from student to student."

The school just celebrated their most recent graduation this June, and with a move to a larger building in August, they'll be growing their student body. "We'll have three times the number of graduates next year than this year," notes Lukens.

Principal watches student give speech OA's Executive Director, James Lukens, watches one of his students give a speech during the June 2019 graduation ceremony. (Photo: Opportunities Academy)

Lukens also sees a residential program in the future, with students able to live close to one another in apartments or houses for support and community.

But for today, a group outing to the local dollar store is on the agenda. With summer breaks coming up, teachers are taking students shopping to find non-tech related games, books, and other activities to keep them occupied — no WiFi required.

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