Lisa Maria Rhodes, better known by her students as Señorita Rhodes, is in her 11th year as an educator in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS — School absences were rare for Lorenzo Elliott, the drum major of the George Washington Carver High School band and an honor roll student with a 96 percent attendance rate.
So a social worker called his home on a December morning in 2015 when he didn’t come to school. His family said that police had picked him up. He was accused of being a getaway driver for two of his cousins, who had robbed someone in New Orleans East. Because he was 17, he was charged as an adult in Louisiana.
Even with his impressive list of accomplishments, Elliott worried that his education would be derailed. “I see a lot of black kids like me lost to the system,” Elliott said. “But my school had my back.” Specifically, Lisa María Rhodes, a social worker at Carver at the time, jumped into action. Early in her teaching career, when she worked as a Spanish language teacher, Rhodes had witnessed how jail pulled promising young people onto a hard-to-reverse path. “Students would be missing from class; I would call home and find that they’d been arrested. It kept happening,” Rhodes said. Because most of her students could not afford even modest bail, they often stayed in jail for months, even years, awaiting trial.
A few hours after Rhodes heard about Elliott’s arrest, she wrote a detailed letter to the magistrate judge, to provide context about the drum major that went far beyond the brief incident summary that the arresting officers had supplied. The following morning, she went to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to deliver the letter in person.
As Elliott sat with his public defender, Rhodes introduced herself to his lawyer and told Elliott that she was there to advocate for him. Elliott seemed a little scared about what faced him, but he was still focused on school: He told her that he was worried about missing an exam in his Advanced Placement environmental science class.