In 1990, the state of Louisiana led the nation with a 51 percent high school dropout rate. At the same time, Louisiana also led the nation in the number of families living at or below the poverty line. In Shreveport, the local officials recognized three groups of citizens as their primary challenge: at-risk high school students, welfare-dependent adults, and working adults who want to earn a high school diploma or improve their job skills. With these groups in mind, Shreveport created the Hamilton Terrace Learning Center. Founded in 1991, Hamilton Terrace is an innovative, second-chance high school whose primary goal is break Louisiana's cycle of welfare dependence and poverty.
Hamilton Terrace differs in many ways from the traditional high school. For instance, all three groups of students attend classes together. In this setting, the younger students, there primarily for disciplinary reasons, benefit from the presence of the "more worldly" adult students. In effect, the classroom becomes a locus of intervention, where the older students can prevent their younger peers from making the same mistakes. Also, the average class size is half of that in the traditional school, so each student has more opportunity for the essential one-on-one teacher contact. Finally, the high school maintains a unique curriculum and tolerant teaching philosophy that emphasizes each student's distinctive "way of learning," creating success where traditional approaches may have failed.
Another aspect of the program's innovation is the unique collaboration between government agencies in support of Hamilton Terrace students: the Caddo Parish determines the daily structure of the program; the Office of Family Services refers adult students; the Shreveport transportation authority provides the students with a bus pass to the school, paid for by the welfare office; Head Start and Child Care Service provide daycare for the students' children; and the Caddo school system's food service provides meals, often allowing a student's food stamps to stretch further.
The program has experienced impressive results. In 1994, 71 percent of Hamilton's graduating class went on to college or some other post-high school training program. Of that year's class, 58 students were on welfare when admitted, but only seven have since returned to public assistance. Of the students whose presence resulted from disciplinary action, the drop-out rate was only 21.4 percent. Further, upon entrance into the program, the average student's skills were at a 6th grade level, but after completing the program, the skill levels reached the 10th grade.
Transferability of the program requires the same leadership, collaboration, and dedicated success that is present in Hamilton Terrace. As most welfare-to-work programs often only provide a short training program to their clients, their success is as restricted as their service. Hamilton Terrace has returned to the basics, ensuring that those at-risk children are given attention now, and those adults who need improvement are given the opportunity to achieve a high-school diploma and compete in the working world. Despite the fact that these students have either already failed or are expected to fail, Hamilton Terrace has removed the obstacles to their success and provided them another chance at a better life.