A Culture of High Expectations in New Orleans

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s words are a challenging reminder of our responsibility to each other in achieving our potential. That responsibility begins with expectations.


No students have suffered from low expectations more than students with significant disabilities. As we consider our hopes for New Orleans over the next 10 years, my thoughts center on these students and what will be expected of them. Imagine a world where all students with significant disabilities go to schools surrounded by the highest expectations for academic achievement, where they are expected to achieve as much as students in AP courses. Imagine these programs expecting special education teachers to be true experts in their field and among the most skilled teachers in the school. And imagine the school as a place where students without disabilities actively participate in a culture that supports the growth and achievement of students with disabilities.

My hope for all of the graduates of 2025 is that they experience this world of high expectations, not just for students with significant disabilities but also for the adults who support them, and for the peers who comprise their school community.

Expectations for Teachers
“Kids will typically meet the expectations you have of them,” I read in a research article my first year of teaching. The article claimed that if teachers expected scholars with significant disabilities to acquire the skills required to read, students typically would meet that expectation. This was striking because at the time, none of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in my class of students with autism were “readers.” I couldn’t conceive how Steven—nonverbal, unable to identify letters—was ever going to be a reader. Yet here an academic article told me that if I expected it, Steven could do it.

Can expectations actually change someone’s potential? I didn’t realize it at the time, but this quote would forever shape the expectations I held for my scholars, their peers, and myself.

Expectations for Students
Brandon was a sophomore when I met him; developmentally, his math skills were at a kindergarten level. We worked on single digit addition for so long, there were times we doubted he would ever be able to do it. But after four years of teaching, time and experience had made me more determined. We worked on the skill diligently, day after day, month after month—for over a year and a half. The day he accurately completed a problem on his own, I was ecstatic! The day he did 10 problems and got every single one of them correct, I cried.

Expectations for Peers
“Ms. Lambrecht, we need to talk.” Her tone was serious, firm. “They aren’t working hard enough.” I was taken aback when Diamond, a student leader in the senior class, came to me upset about what was happening in the classroom for scholars with significant disabilities. We had had some recent staffing changes, and while Diamond was not a student in the program, as an observer she was very concerned about the quality of instruction she saw. She was angry at what was (and wasn’t) happening in that classroom, moved to the point of advocating on her peers’ behalf.

What was it that brought out such a protective reaction from Diamond? No one ever told her, “You should be a bulldog for the rights of individuals with disabilities.” Instead, she went to a school where she interacted with students with significant disabilities daily—they were her peers, they were on the same team, and she was expected to support them in the exact same ways she would her best friend.

Expectations for the Graduates of 2025
I’m proud of the growth New Orleans has achieved in the last 10 years. Yet work remains in seeing the potential of all children and adults realized. While “high expectations” is a phrase we hear often, we must discipline ourselves to constantly assess whether the expectations we hold for ourselves, our teachers, and our students are truly the highest we can hold. We must actively seek out and broadcast the stories that prove what’s possible when adults and students build a culture of the highest expectations. And we must use those stories to set the standard of what to expect of the children we serve and the adults who serve them.

Just as Brandon achieved what many considered impossible for him, every scholar’s story can be one of overcoming the impossible. We will never be the community we ought to be until every scholar is given that opportunity. New Orleans has already demonstrated the power of not being deterred by adversity. Let’s make proving the impossible the expectation of every classroom.

Kelsey Lambrecht is Director of Intervention at Sci Academy in New Orleans.

This is the fifth in a series of blogs from education leaders in New Orleans—people in the trenches sharing their ideas about what’s next for the city’s public schools. Have some thoughts of your own? Send them our way and we will publish a compilation of responses.

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