I met Damion three years ago when I was interviewing for my current position as principal at New Orleans Cohen College Prep. Damion and his paraprofessional were walking around the school building, working on his morning greeting. His para would prompt him to say “Good morning, Ms. ___,” and Damion would struggle to repeat the greeting; he has been diagnosed with severe autism.

Today, if you were to meet Damion, you would be able to communicate with him, often with eye contact. He would likely tell you hello and share with you his love of dinosaurs. His sentences are still broken, and some of his anxiety remains. But the progress he has made speaks to the hours of hard work, love and commitment that Cohen’s special education team and his family have put in alongside Damion over the past years.

Damion’s success isn’t unique in New Orleans. The news that a settlement has been reached in a lawsuit about special education students in our city is welcomed by all of us who work every day with these exceptional young people.

In 2003, before Hurricane Katrina, one in 10 children with special needs left high school with a diploma.

Today, almost half of ninth-graders with special needs will graduate in four years.

Growth in academic achievement for students with disabilities has grown from 18 percent proficiency in 2008 to 44 percent in 2013.

There are many challenges, but there is also a great deal of hope. The mission of Cohen College Prep — to build a college prep school that prepares all students for college and life success — guides our team’s work every day. Our plan for our special education population is no exception. In the 2014-15 school year, our special education population increased for the third year in a row to nearly 19 percent — exceeding the national average of 13 percent. We take every student who comes to us, and we do whatever it takes to make sure that they have the best options in life after they leave us — ranging from college success to a transition plan after graduation.

We are seeing the fruits of that labor pay off. Students with disabilities who might have been written off in a different setting are getting the support they need to realize their college and life goals.

There is not a principal or teacher in New Orleans today who would tell you that we have it all figured out. Yet, there is little doubt that the system today is providing kids and families with better options than ever before as New Orleans continues to build a school system where any student, regardless of need, can thrive.

Rahel Wondwossen

principal, New Orleans Cohen College Prep

New Orleans