Big Challenges in the Big Easy

by Gail Robinson | Photography by Jennifer S. Altman

EdNavigator goes to work as employers help families on the path from preschool to college and career
The Harrell family — left to right: Kenneth, Greta, Kenveon, and Kendrick — shares supper on a school night. The boys have already done their homework, so in keeping with the rules, they can look forward to playing video games after the meal. Kenveon, who has ADHD, has had academic struggles, but, with the help of EdNavigator, his parents feel that he is now on the right track. (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman)

All things considered, the day has not been a bad one for Jovon Melrose, a housekeeper and trainer at the New Orleans Marriott on the edge of the French Quarter. It is well past 1 p.m. and, so far, her son’s school has not called to report a problem or an absence.

Melrose’s 14-year-old son, Milton Marcelin, Jr., grapples with mental health issues and asthma, leading to absences and misbehavior in school. “I was having problems with my son that were making it hard for me to do my eight hours,” she says. The school would call at 10 in the morning telling her to get there immediately. “It bothers my job and I’ve got bills to pay,” she explains.

Lately, though, Melrose says, “I can work better. I can be at peace.”

The source of that comfort is EdNavigator, a nonprofit that helps some New Orleans parents support and advocate for their children in school by assigning them an individual counselor — a “Navigator” — who works with them intensely to meet their children’s needs.

EdNavigator recruits parents through their employers, and even meets with parents “on site” at work or wherever else is convenient for them.

Melrose’s Navigator, Rameisha Johnson, is trying to find programs to help Milton, including possibly placing him in a new school. She talks to him about college and, says Melrose, “She’ll pop up to school to see what he’s doing. She saw him sleeping once and said, ‘This is not the place for sleeping.’”

Reaching Working Parents at Work

While the extent of help Melrose receives is unusual, even more unusual is that she receives much of this counseling at her workplace — and her employer pays for it. EdNavigator recruits parents through their employers, meeting parents “on site” at work or wherever else is convenient for them. Employers pay a fee to EdNavigator for each employee who signs up. Grants, including from Carnegie Corporation of New York, provide additional funding.

Launched in August 2015, EdNavigator currently helps parents at 14 worksites in the New Orleans area. The program offers a new model for enabling and increasing parent engagement while addressing the barriers that keep well-intentioned parents from being as involved in their children’s educations as they would like to be.

Although common sense and some research indicate that children do better when parents and schools work together, the relationship has often been a rocky one. “Families of modest economic means and who themselves have limited educational experience have found it terrifying to interact with school systems for decades,” says Timothy Daly, a founding partner of EdNavigator.

Recent changes in schools and educational systems have placed even more demands on parents. New curricula and the introduction of Common Core learning standards have left parents struggling to help their kids with their homework and wondering what schools expect of children today. School choice has opened an array of possibilities — charters, vouchers, magnet schools, and special programs — to families across the country. But meaningful information on schools can be hard to come by. Which school will work for which child?

EdNavigator seems to hit that sweet spot of enabling businesses to do well while doing good.

David Keeling, another founding partner of EdNavigator, began noticing that he and many of his friends, including education professionals, often found it difficult to select an appropriate school for their own children. They began to wonder, “If this is hard for us, what about a single mom making $10 an hour? Families who are counting on schools to help their children make a better life for themselves — those families needed better support to do that.”

Keeling, Daly, and Ariela Rozman began pondering this predicament. All three were veterans of TNTP (founded in 1997 as The New Teacher Project), which works to improve teacher quality and runs teaching fellows programs in a number of cities, including New Orleans.

The trio agreed that to be truly helpful, the program would have to include long-lasting relationships — hence the idea of providing every family with its own Navigator. That Navigator would have legal access to the child’s school records and also be able to attend school conferences with — or in place of — the parent.

The team understood that parents must be actively involved advocates for their kids. “You don’t get through 13 years of public education without having to push at some juncture,” Daly says. But they also understood that there are obstacles that make it difficult for parents to speak up for and help their children. For Daly, it’s clear: “The biggest reason that parents don’t engage more at school is that they’re working and they have to earn a living.”

So, given that employers were part of the problem, could they also be part of the solution?

With Future Employees in Mind

Keeling, Daly, and Rozman started to consider an ongoing service, partly funded by employers — something resembling an employee benefit like health insurance. Like other workplace benefits, it could lead to more satisfied, less distracted employees. And, says Daly, there was an added incentive. Employers are concerned about education because “they are terrified about the future of the workforce.”

Although the three TNTP veterans did not design EdNavigator specifically for New Orleans, parents there definitely face a tough task negotiating the school system because, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and years of poor school performance, the city has moved to a virtually all-charter school system.

Kent Jones, a father of two daughters who works at New Orleans Marriott, reviews school information with his Navigator, Victoria Williams. Everything is going well for his two girls at school. “I went to parent-teacher conferences,” Jones beams, “and they didn’t have anything but good things to say.” (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman)

“It was difficult for parents to think about this new landscape,” says Patrick Dobard, until recently superintendent of the Recovery School District, which oversees 80 schools in Louisiana, 68 of them in New Orleans. Making informed choices about schools, he said, required parents “to do a number of things that many of them were not well-equipped to do.”

EdNavigator was still just an idea when it caught the attention of Sean Cummings, a New Orleans native, real estate entrepreneur, and owner of the International House, a boutique hotel located just a few blocks from the French Quarter. Cummings was interested in having someone help his employees deal with issues involving their children and thought that maybe his human relations manager could take on the challenge. But EdNavigator piqued his interest.

Amy Reimer, general manager of International House, says the program filled a need, even if it was one that had never been fully recognized. “A lot of our great room attendants would come in late or not show up or leave early. We knew there was an issue, but we didn’t think we could do anything about it.”

Superintendent Dobard also found the idea intriguing. When Timothy Daly approached him with the concept, Dobard was impressed. “I thought this was just such a well-developed idea. He wasn’t trying to do everything for everybody, but he definitely wanted to do something good for a focused group of parents.”

Building Relationships

In August 2015, EdNavigator came to International House. Since then, 16 families have signed up. They work with Gary Briggs, a New Orleans native and former teacher who — as Lead Navigator — now spends most of his days at the hotel, staying in almost constant contact with his parents.

Briggs himself went to public, Catholic, and charter schools before landing at a largely white private high school. He uses his own story when working with parents. “There isn’t a culture gap because we’re from the same city and we’re able to speak the same cultural language,” he says.

Since starting with International House and then other hotels, EdNavigator has expanded beyond the hospitality industry to Tulane University, Ochsner Health Systems, and Preservation Hall (where the organization works with teaching artists). More employer partners are on the way. This gives some 730 families access to EdNavigator. Twenty-two of those parents, including Jovon Melrose, work at New Orleans Marriott on Canal Street.

Navigator Rameisha Johnson, Navigator Victoria Williams, parent Lucia Ferrara, and Assistant Navigator Ileana Ortiz gather in the New Orleans Marriott employee lunchroom. (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman)

The Marriott employee cafeteria is situated in the hotel’s basement, at the end of halls lined with cleaning supplies and stripped bed linens. Amid the lunchtime banter, three women — Navigators — commandeer two tables and check in with several hotel staff members. (Navigators have been likened to “pediatricians for your educational health.”)

The conversations are warm but purposeful. Kent Jones speaks with Victoria Williams, his Navigator, who reminds him of the importance of reading to his young daughters. He says all is going well. “I went to parent-teacher conferences and they didn’t have anything but good things to say.” Jones appreciates the Navigator’s help: “Getting another hand is always good.”

Kizzie Youngblood has concerns about her son, who is in 7th grade. Her daughter is about to graduate from Tuskegee University, but, she says, “with the boys, you’ve got to look out for them.”

Her Navigator, Rameisha Johnson, has reviewed her son’s report card, gone to school conferences, visited the school when Youngblood couldn’t get there, and helped her find him a mentor. “Some things they can do that I can’t do,” Youngblood says. “They help me a whole lot.”

“If the school isn’t working for your kids, then the school isn’t upholding their end of the bargain.”
— Gary Briggs, Lead Navigator, EdNavigator

Supporting working parents like this costs money. Employers pay a fee of $5 and up per month for each employee participating in the program, with the exact amount depending partly on how the service is set up at a particular workplace. EdNavigator is also developing a mechanism that will allow individuals, not just employers, to pay for a family’s membership in EdNavigator, enabling many more families to avail themselves of the help. In the future some parents might have to pay a small fee, which cofounder David Keeling likens to an insurance co-pay, although EdNavigator emphasizes its services must remain “highly affordable.”

For International House’s Amy Reimer, EdNavigator seems to hit that sweet spot of enabling businesses to do well while doing good. Employees who work with Navigators are less distracted, their supervisors say. The program also helps hotels retain and perhaps even attract workers in New Orleans’ competitive employment market.

Vanessa Jackson, manager at the Residence Inn New Orleans, says she saw “some of my associates go through this crazy personal stuff,” including school issues and concerns about after-school care. An Ontario native who has lived in New Orleans for 13 years and is now raising her own child there, Jackson is “passionate” about the city, which still faces many challenges, from the state of the school system to high crime rates. “Everything starts at home,” she asserts. “If kids get into a good school and stay there, that’s a big piece. I wanted to make sure my team was set for success so they could navigate that.”

Kenveon Harrell works as his younger brother, Kendrick, looks on. The two boys used to attend a charter school in New Orleans but, after discussions with the family’s Navigator, their parents moved them to the neighborhood school near their home in suburban Metairie. (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman)

For parents, joining EdNavigator requires commitment. They must grant the organization full access to their child’s records (EdNavigator never shares information with the parent’s employer). Once the Navigator gets that access, parents can be surprised at what they learn about their kids. Parent-teacher conferences and report cards can gloss over problems. A recent study by Learning Heroes found that 87 percent of Louisiana parents said they believed their child was reading at or above grade level, even though in fact only 40 percent were. “We help parents get the full picture,” says Gary Briggs. That, he adds, leaves “many of them in shock but not disheartened.”

The Navigators assist parents with a range of issues, from daunting challenges like those faced by Milton Marcelin, to coaching a mother on how to teach her pre-K daughter to tie her shoes. They translate for students who are not proficient in English, and they help parents set goals, most of which — but not all — are academic.

David Keeling recounts the story of one girl who habitually fell asleep when doing her reading homework, causing her to fall behind. The Navigator learned that the girl always read in bed. Once the mother, at the Navigator’s suggestion, set up a chair and a light for her daughter — and sat with her as she read — the girl’s performance at school improved.

Flipping Their Lids

For parents, dealing with schools can be frustrating. Lead Navigator Briggs believes schools suffer from “a lack of understanding of the folks that they’re serving. They have good intentions, but they don’t understand the ins and outs,” such as what it’s like for a mother who is working two jobs.

Information can be difficult to come by. Parents who aren’t proficient in English have to deal with complicated issues in a language they have difficulty understanding. Even parents fluent in English can get lost in a maze of jargon. Schools schedule conferences at inconvenient times or demand parents drop everything to show up. Faced with this, says Rameisha Johnson, the Marriott Navigator, many parents “feel the only way they get a reaction is if they flip their lids.” But, she adds, “parents get a different answer when EdNavigator is in the room.”

Jovon Melrose’s teenage son faces a variety of challenges at school, making it difficult for her to do her job. But EdNavigator has helped her. “I can work better,” she says. “I can be at peace.” (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman)

Greta and Kenneth Harrell of Metairie, just outside the city, pride themselves on being involved parents. Natives of Chicago, both work for Marriott, Kenneth as chief engineer at the Residence Inn in Metairie, Greta as a cook at the Residence Inn Downtown New Orleans. They have two sons, Kenveon, age 10, and Kendrick, two years younger.

Like most children in Jefferson Parish, Kenveon started school at his neighborhood elementary school. In kindergarten, he was diagnosed with ADHD. With special help he was able to do well, but the services did not continue. Frustrated at the prospect of having to go to the school board every year to make sure Kenveon got the help he needed, Kenneth and Greta transferred Kenveon to a KIPP school in the city. His brother joined him there.

At first, that school seemed to do “everything right,’’ Kenneth says. But staff turnover exacted a toll. Kenveon’s grades took another downturn in 4th grade, and Greta and Kenneth sent their son to private tutoring services. It looked like it was time to change schools again.

“We empower parents when we hear their voices, when we take what it is that they’re saying and investigate it and then use that feedback to improve the quality of education.”
— Patrick Dobard, Former Superintendent, Recovery School District

Greta’s employer offered EdNavigator (Vanessa Jackson is her supervisor), so Greta began talking with Timothy Daly about where the boys might go. “Tim was awesome. He did everything,” says Greta. “He stayed on top of it like they were his own kids.”

As the Harrells and Daly reviewed the options, it became clear that the best choice might be to go back to their old neighborhood school. It seemed that staff changes had fixed some of the problems that spurred them to leave in the first place.

About halfway through 5th grade, things seem to be going well for Kenveon. Greta says he has been working hard and she hopes that by the end of the year her son will be within six months of his reading level. For his part, Kenveon boasts that he recently finished a book with 32 chapters, although, he hastens to add, “not in one day. That would be impossible.”

Small Wins and No Complaints

“Folks have seen the value of it,” Superintendent Dobard says, adding that he has had no complaints about EdNavigator. He points out that that’s a good sign, because “here in New Orleans, if you don’t hear criticism about something, then it’s going well.”

Mohammad Judeh — with his son, Fethi Judeh, on his lap — meets with Lead Navigator Gary Briggs at Fethi’s pre-K school. EdNavigator can help parents like Judeh find an appropriate elementary school for their child, a sometimes challenging task in New Orleans. (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman)

Gary Briggs says the victories are small in what he describes as “a day in, day out grind. If we can get a teacher to implement a system — on a consistent basis — that’s a small win. If we can encourage mom or dad to read to their kid every day and they’re tracking that, that’s a win.”

Kenneth Harrell sees the “wins” involving his family as anything but small. Knowing Kenveon is legally entitled to the services that make a big difference for him has changed his father’s overall perspective. Now when Kenneth is at his sons’ school, “I go into the meeting with a different attitude. I know what I’m supposed to get. It’s the law.”

That sense of power is important, says Briggs. “If the school isn’t working for your kids,” he explains, “then the school isn’t upholding their end of the bargain.”

“This isn’t a service for people who — quote unquote — need it. Everyone needs it.”
— David Keeling, Cofounder, EdNavigator

That kind of attitude marks a change for many parents, particularly in New Orleans. As the city and state set out to rebuild the school system after Hurricane Katrina, Dobard says, “One of the criticisms we received — and I think rightfully so — is that a lot of different things were done to the community instead of with the community.” In the years since, he is confident the district has taken steps to address that miscalculation. While parent engagement looks different from school to school and from family to family, Dobard believes that school leaders must be receptive to parents: “We empower parents when we hear their voices, when we take what it is that they’re saying and investigate it and then use that feedback to improve the quality of education.”

At this point, EdNavigator does not yet have enough employers on board to make that empowering of parents happen throughout the city of New Orleans. It has, however, been expanding and is looking to launch the service to a second city later this year. Cofounder David Keeling speculates about a time when parents in a wide range of jobs and living anywhere in the country will have access to the kind of support that Jovon Melrose and her son are getting in New Orleans, thanks to EdNavigator. With parents being given more and more choices about their children’s education, the stakes for families are high. But parents shouldn’t have to do it all alone. “This isn’t a service for people who — quote unquote — need it,” says Keeling. “Everyone needs it.”


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