From Bail Bondsman To Teacher

Jun 6, 2015

In a windowless classroom, in a tough New Orleans neighborhood, a middle-aged man with piercing eyes is teaching math at top volume.

"I got a SINGLE DOLLAR if someone can tell me what's the RULE to this problem!" he intones.

Today's lesson is about the order of operations, a topic usually taught in elementary school. On average, Rodney Carey's students are working at a fifth-grade level. But they are much older, aged 16 to 24.

Mr. Rodney, as he is known, does whatever he can to motivate them, whether that's ordering in Chinese food or giving out cash prizes.

"He be tough on everybody," says Darren Johnson, one of Mr. Rodney's students. "He want everybody to have some success. He want his whole class to be graduating."

That's a tall order. The Youth Empowerment Project, where Mr. Rodney teaches, is the largest organization in the city dedicated to helping young people earn their high school equivalency.

In a landscape of wrong turns, YEP offers a way out.

Johnson dropped out of the seventh grade and was arrested twice, spending six months on house arrest, before he came here. He's now 16, and he's found a role model in the stooped teacher with the twisted gait.

Johnson says Mr. Rodney gives out his phone number to all the students, and if you need a ride home? He'll drive you.

"I like where he come from with it. He want to see his people move forward."

Carey knows exactly where Johnson and his other students are coming from. He grew up in the Ninth Ward. Before he was a teacher, he was a bail bondsman. And before that? He was a kid in trouble.

"I was seeing the number of young folks I used to bail out of jail and I thought, there is a lack of opportunity and these kids are underserved," he explains. "So I thought to myself, let me find a career that can help the young folks to avoid that process. And if they did go through the process already, try to find a way to deter them not to go back."

About 14 percent of the program's referrals come directly from the courts, and many of the rest, like Johnson, have been arrested at least once.

Carey's own forays into burglary, drugs and gangs all happened by the time he was 16.

That year, he had a strange stroke of luck: He got shot.

"I was hit three times in my side, two times in my back. And it left me an incomplete paraplegic. I had to learn how to walk all over again. I was in a wheelchair about four years." He still walks with a cane.

He had to transfer to a school that was wheelchair accessible. With nowhere to go other than school, he graduated an A and B student. He's currently earning a master's degree in criminal justice.

Success stories like his are all too rare in this city, where 26,000 young people are neither in school nor working. It's the third highest rate in the U.S.

Poverty and violence have long been off the charts. Hurricane Katrina didn't help matters. When the storm hit a decade ago, the students in this program were children or young teens.

"We're seeing compounding elements of trauma, stress, disconnection, uprootedness," says Melissa Sawyer, the founder of YEP, a privately funded nonprofit. "A lot of kids were out of school for months, if not years, at impressionable ages and are really far behind."

Sawyer worries too about the impact of the nearly all-charter school system. Suspension rates in the city's charter schools are three times the state average, and she says more and students have been showing up at YEP after getting suspended, expelled or dropping out.

"My front line staff on a regular basis are frustrated that they're putting them out of school for such dumb stuff," Sawyer says.

Sawyer created Carey's class to fill a special need. The teacher, assistants, and students are all African-American men.

"Because the challenges that young black men are facing are so difficult," Sawyer explains, "we've really created a space where they talk, they share, they have a space to run ideas by each other."

For Carey, sharing his own story of redemption has become something of a calling. When he's not teaching, he visits middle school classrooms to tell his story.

"I know that you cannot save everybody," he says. "But if one of them could just go along, complete his education, go to college, and I see him in the future doing something positive with his life, that makes me think that what I was doing is all worthwhile."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.