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Treme Charter School Assoc. withdraws, citing progress, but not enough of it

On Wednesday afternoon, in a corner of the East New Orleans Public Library, the Treme Charter School Association held their final board meeting, ending a five-year struggle by the community group to upgrade a troubled elementary school.

“Looking back we needed more money and more time,” said former board president Rosalyn Smith. “When you go where the most serious need exists, it’s just going to take more time.”

Formed in 2005 to seek grant money to upgrade McDonogh 42, the association had not planned to run a school, but yielded to community pressure and eventually did just that. With McDonogh 42, it was taking on an elementary school badly in need of repairs and with some of the lowest student scores in the state.

Consistent with state school policy, failure to upgrade student performance eventually cost the Treme group its charter, which has been awarded to the Choice Foundation, one of the city’s most successful charter school managers.

Smith says she has seen a lot over the span of her career in education. And while it is disappointing to lose the charter, she says she’s proud of what the board accomplished.

“This process we are in right now is all about the children,” she said. “What is most important is that the children have a school that is finally going to be repaired and a new charter operator that has the children’s best interest in mind. I believe the children at McDonogh 42 will reach great heights under the leadership of the Choice Foundation and we can smile knowing we contributed to that success.”

Smith said that despite the inability to raise student performance scores, the board has always been run with a high degree of professionalism and transparency.

“We have had a healthy fund balance the entire time we’ve been in operation. So from a business experience we were very successful,” Smith said.

She said the most difficult aspect of losing the charter was the manner in which the decision was handed down last November.

“I understand that test scores are the only measure that matters, but we were showing growth and to announce the closing that early in the year was severely detrimental to any progress we were making,” she said.

“I didn’t want my teachers and staff to believe it was over that soon and I didn’t believe that BESE and the RSD would shut us down that early in the school year. That hurt us even more.  How can you say it’s a done deal when you have months left on a contract?  Either your contract is valid through the end or it’s not. BESE and the RSD need to figure that out. It hurt everybody’s will to succeed. The most difficult thing to do was keep everyone’s head up,” Smith said.

Smith says she hopes officials will reach out to begin a dialogue with the charter association about their experience with the school closing.

“RSD, BESE and (state Superintendent of Education) John White are in a learning mode just like the rest of us in the current educational landscape,” Smith said. “They could learn from our experience and about the full impact of the way we close schools and transition them, the way the contracts are written.”

At the end of the day, Smith said she knows the Treme board is leaving the Choice Foundation with an improved product.

“Nobody could ever make us feel like a failure; I’m excited for the children. We didn’t get where we needed to be with the test scores, but we did everything else,” Smith said.

With the school board dissolved as of June 30, there is not much to do but wrap up the final business in a legal and timely manner. The board hopes to complete the process by the end of the year.

Smith has officially stepped down as president, but will continue her community work. The Treme Charter School Association won’t be running any schools next year, but they have decided to continue on as a non-profit and look for future opportunities to strengthen the Treme neighborhood.

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