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Turning now to New Orleans, where a man with a dark past has devoted his life to helping students avoid the mistakes he made. He grew up in the Ninth Ward and now teaches a second chance class. The students call him Mr. Rodney. It's part of the NPR Ed team's ongoing New Orleans coverage and the Fifty Great Teachers series. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: It's the middle of the afternoon - a windowless second-floor classroom. Students drift in well after class time, but they don't get a scowl or a write-up. Instead, Rodney Carey welcomes each one.
RODNEY CAREY: Hey, what's going on? (Laughter) What's going on man? How you doing, bro?
KAMENETZ: They roam around, sitting on desks, playing with their ear buds. But everyone quiets down as Mr. Rodney calls volunteers to the board. Today's lesson covers adding and subtracting negative and positive numbers, a concept usually introduced in elementary school.
CAREY: I've got a single dollar if someone could tell me what's the rule to this problem.
KAMENETZ: The Youth Empowerment Project takes students ages 16 to 24. It's one of the only places in New Orleans where young people can go to earn their high school equivalency after dropping out. When they come here, on average they're working at a fifth grade level. Mr. Rodney does whatever he can to motivate them, whether that's bringing in Chinese food or giving out cash prizes.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Keep change chained.
CAREY: Bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. Keep change chained. They ain't got no change, huh? Isn't that something? I'm going to give you a dollar though.
KAMENETZ: Legally, students under 18 should be served by public schools. Instead, more and more have been showing at this privately-funded nonprofit. Nine out of 10 students in New Orleans attend charter schools, where suspension rates are three times the state average - too many students missing too much school.
CAREY: They're truant. And then from truancy to, you know, major crimes or adult crimes, and then from adult crimes to, you know, the big house - the big jail, you know, so - prison.
KAMENETZ: Mr. Rodney understands where these students are coming from.
CAREY: I'm from New Orleans. I'm from here. Yeah, been here all my life in Ninth Ward area.
KAMENETZ: He grew up in a good family, but he still got into trouble.
CAREY: Drug-related, gang-related - the whole kit and caboodle.
KAMENETZ: All that ended one night in the wrong car with the wrong people.
CAREY: I was shot as a teenager. I was shot. That's why I walk with this cane right here. And I was hit three times in my side, two times in my back, and it left me incomplete paraplegic, and I had to learn how to walk all over again.
KAMENETZ: In a way, it was an odd stroke of luck.
CAREY: Once I got shot, I was limited. I ain't had no other choice but to go to school.
KAMENETZ: He got his B.A. in criminal justice. For a while, he worked as a bail bondsman, but he wanted to do something more.
CAREY: I was seeing the number of young folks I used to bail out of jail. So I thought, you know, to myself let me find a career that can help the young folks to avoid that process.
DARREN JOHNSON: He be tough on everybody. He want everybody to have success. He want his whole class to be graduating.
KAMENETZ: Darren Johnson is one of Mr. Rodney's students. He dropped out of the seventh grade, was arrested twice and spent six months on house arrest before he came to the Youth Empowerment Project. He's 16 years old. Johnson says Mr. Rodney gives out his phone number to all the students, and if you need a ride home, he'll drive you.
JOHNSON: And I like where he come from with it. He wants to see his people move forward.
KAMENETZ: For Johnson and lots of young people in this city, that path forward is murky - 26,000 are neither in school nor working. It's the third-highest rate among U.S. cities. Poverty and violence have been endemic here for a long time. Then came Hurricane Katrina.
MELISSA SAWYER: A lot of kids were out of school, sometimes for months, if not years. And so we're really, really just kind of far behind.
KAMENETZ: Melissa Sawyer founded the Youth Empowerment Project.
SAWYER: We're seeing compounding elements, I think, of trauma of kids whose families have been through so much stress and disconnection and uprooted-ness.
KAMENETZ: Sawyer created Mr. Rodney's class to fill a special need. The teacher, assistants and students are all African-American boys and men. In their short lives, these kids have seen too much. But in Mr. Rodney, they have a teacher who understands.
CAREY: We show them a lot of love. We don't turn nobody away. Sometimes it's a battle when you're trying to direct or move someone right. You get a lot of pushback.
KAMENETZ: But if just one student makes it through and onto college and a job, he says it's all been worth it. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
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