Erica Larkins took a risk when she took a job at Abramson Elementary in eastern New Orleans.
The school was failing. There were reports of cheating and student violence. Still, she joined the staff and enrolled her daughter Elexi into the school’s second grade.
A year later, Larkins is happy with her position and with her daughter’s high grades, but she is facing an even bigger challenge.
The school is closing. She’s out of a job and her daughter is out of a school.
The Recovery School District announced last month its plans to shutter Abramson as part of a larger reorganization strategy effective next fall.
For Larkins, 41, the worst part isn’t what this means for her career or her daughter’s schooling. The worst part is that the only spot her child is guaranteed next year is with H.C. Schaumburg, another F-rated school, according to the most recent records available from the Louisiana Department of Education.
“So you’re gonna take these kids away from the teachers they already know and bring them to another substandard school?” Larkins, 41, asked during a meeting Recovery School District officials hosted Tuesday night to address Abramson parent concerns.
“What they’re really doing by bringing the kids someplace else that’s equally as bad,” Larkins said, “is risking regression.”
Abramson, which was rated an F school based on student test scores and other data from the 2011-12 school year, is one of four schools the Recovery School District plans to close in the fall.
All of the children currently enrolled at those schools will be guaranteed spots at other specifically designated schools – for example, children at Abramson will be guaranteed a spot at Schaumburg, although they can apply for spots in other schools.
Additionally, Schaumburg will become a charter school when the Recovery School District relinquishes direct management to the ReNEW Charter Management Organization.
Schaumburg is one of five schools directly operated by the Recovery School District that will be managed by a charter organization during the 2013- 2014 school year.
Zoey Reed, a spokeswoman for the Recovery School District, said the district wants to get out of the business of operating schools itself and sees part of its mission to find charter operators for the schools.
In addition to closing Abramson and two other schools, the Recovery School District aims to turn over four of the 12 schools it directly runs, releasing operational control for those campuses into the hands of charter operators like ReNEW.
Besides Schaumburg, the others include two D-rated schools — Mary D. Coghill Elementary in Ponchartrain Park and Paul B. Habans Elementary in Algiers — and the F-rated L.B. Landry High in Algiers, which will be merged with O. Perry Walker High, a B school.
Like the students at Abramson, children at other schools that are being closed are being offered spots at substandard schools. Students at F-rated Murray Henderson Elementary are guaranteed admission to Habans. Those at James Weldon Johnson Elementary have spots at Banneker Elementary, an F school that Recovery School District officials will continue to run directly.
At an information session for parents at Abramson on Tuesday night, Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said he feels optimistic about the future of schools managed by charter organizations.
“We can finally hold schools accountable for their results,” Dobard said. “In the past, we could have failing schools for decades and nothing would change dramatically.”
But ReNEW’s track record doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence for Abramson parents about what might be ahead for their students at Schaumburg charter school.
ReNEW already manages four schools – ReNEW Accelerated High School, Reed Elementary, Batiste Cultural Arts Academy and SciTech Academy.
Three of the schools are currently have scores that technically fall in the failing range, but haven’t been given Fs from the state because they were recently taken over by a charter organization. The high school, which is an alternative school at two locations, is labeled with an F.
ReNEW officials on Tuesday, however, did cite improvements in student achievement over the past two years, according to the school performance scores the state Department of Education uses to grade schools. (Those scores are based on student test performance and rates of attendance, dropout and graduation.) Since 2010, Batiste has experienced a growth of 29 points; SciTech has seen a 32-point gain; Reed has improved 19 points.
ReNEW Accelerated High School, which was not included in the presentation ReNEW officials shared with parents, received a performance score of 27.3 out of 200 possible points points in 2011-12. Only three schools in the state fared worse, according to state data.
Still, Dobard said he’s optimistic about ReNEW leading Schaumburg.
“ReNEW shows they can transform schools very quickly,” Dobard told The Lens after the meeting. “They’ve planned for their growth, and they have more than met our requirements in the charter application process.”
By becoming a charter school, Dobard said, Schaumburg will gain autonomy and give parents more opportunities for input. And ReNEW President Kevin Guitterrez said the charter plans to give the school a creative arts and humanities focus.
New Orleans musician and educator David Batiste spoke at the meeting on behalf of ReNEW, adding that he would be working firsthand with students and the charter organization to integrate arts education as a means to expand students’ horizons.
“It will be a great cultural environment with the integration of arts with the curriculum,” Dobard added. “The Batiste family is so closely tied with New Orleans. It’s so naturally New Orleans, and it speaks so highly of our culture.”
Not everyone was as optimistic about ReNEW adding Schaumburg to its charter portfolio, however.
Several parents echoed Larkins’ concerns about the future of the children in a school that already has a questionable track record, run by an organization whose schools are struggling.
“I’m really disappointed, and I’m concerned about the kids,” said Earline Wallace, 54, an eastern New Orleans resident who has a niece in Abramson. “I know the teachers here, and they’ve been good. I don’t know the teachers over at Schaumburg.”
Several at the meeting said the school had improved in the past year after the Recovery School District revoked the charter from the Pelican Educational Foundation and took the school over. They had hoped that the Recovery School District would give the school more time to improve before shutting it down.
“There has been a great cultural change at the school, with substantial educational and behavioral issues that were addressed,” said Larkins. “The whole school had been revised.”
Parents also aired concern about the number of children going into Schaumburg and potential overcrowding of classrooms during the 2013-14 school year.
According to Recovery School District officials, the Schaumburg facility was underutilized last year with just 589 children occupying a building with a capacity for 946.
However, if all of the 326 students enrolled in Abramson transferred to Schaumburg, the school would be near capacity.
As a teacher, Larkins said she’s seen how a high student-teacher ratio can hurt classroom safety.
“A low level of discipline mixed with low academic performance – that’s a recipe for disaster,” she said.
Tuesday’s meeting at Abramson was just one in a series of informational sessions the Recovery School District has been hosting for families of students at schools that are being reorganized.
Parent meetings were also scheduled Wednesday at James Weldon Johnson and Murray Henderson elementary schools, and the following meetings are still planned:
- Thursday, 5:30 p.m. at Pride College Prep, Benjamin Mays Preparatory and Paul Habans elementary schools
- Thursday, Jan. 17, 5:30 p.m. at Intercultural Charter School
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post reported the wrong letter grade for some of the ReNEW schools. Three of them are reported by the state as “Ts,” which means their scores are low enough to qualify them as failing but they were recently obtained by a charter management organization and are considered “turnaround schools.” The fourth is an F. Also in an earlier version, The Lens misstated which member of the Batiste family spoke on behalf of ReNEW.