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New school at old Wheatley site could soon belong to Dibert

John Dibert Community School could soon have a new school building at the old Phillis Wheatley Elementary School site in Treme.

Members of FirstLine Schools’ Board of Directors indicated Friday they’d like to move toward signing a proposed seven-year lease with the Wheatley School Facility Foundation for use of the new building, which is currently under construction at 2300 Dumaine St., once they have fully vetted the lease with an attorney.

Demolished in 2011 amid some controversy, the Recovery School District is rebuilding a Wheatley school at an estimated cost of $25 million, according to Recovery School District spokeswoman Zoey Reed.

FirstLine spokeswoman Rebekah Cain said, if the lease is approved, Dibert could move out of its current facility at 4217 Orleans Ave. as soon as the 2014-15 school year.

FirstLine Chief Executive Officer Jay Altman said this is the first time the RSD is attempting to use tax credits to help fund construction of a new school building. Altman said he wants “to ensure there’s due diligence” as the school proceeds into this uncharted territory.

“We’re the guinea pig,” Altman said. “We want to be the guinea pig that mitigates risk for all other guinea pigs.”

After a long debate about how to proceed in signing a sublease agreement with the Wheatley School Foundation, FirstLine board president Lawrence Kullman made a motion to approve a resolution giving the CEO authority to sign such a lease once it’s been been reviewed and approved by “personnel and general counsel and the chairman of the board.”

Board members voted to approve the matter.

The facility discussion was just one of many topics FirstLine Schools’ board tackled over a two-day retreat this weekend.

Board members also decided to take a closer look at the board’s mission and primary objectives statement and how it might align with future goals.

The statement currently reads: “The mission of FirstLine schools is to create and inspire great open admissions public schools in the future.” It then goes on to say, “Our schools will prepare students for college and fulfilling careers” by achieving objectives outlined in the statement.

In a debate that spanned nearly an hour, board members discussed whether or not to amend the statement to read: “our schools will prepare students for college and/or fulfilling careers.”

Altman said the board might one day run more than one high school or high school program and it makes sense to anticipate that change by including language that allows for a school with more of a career focus.

After much discussion, board members seemed to agree that they want to explore the possibility of operating career education programs as well as the current academically oriented “college track.”

“I think I think the options are getting better, but they’re still poor for kids who are not on a college track,” said board member Alison Hartman.

“Every high school in New Orleans has a serious dropout rate problem,” Altman said. “We could help a much larger population if we could get them to make it through high school and go on to more fulfilling careers even if it doesn’t involve college.”

One possibility discussed included expanding Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School and finding other organizations to partner with.

Also during the meeting, the board outlined goals they hope to accomplish by 2016, including raising overall student performance.

The board agreed that all FirstLine K-8 schools should have an assessment index of 100 or higher by the end of the 2015-16 school year. Assessment index is the measurement of raw student achievement on the state’s standardized test over one year.

Right now, according to data the board presented, Arthur Ashe Charter School’s score is 85.6, Dibert’s is 84.8, Samuel J. Green Charter School is at 77.7 and Langston Hughes Academy is at 77.7.

FirstLine hopes to bring the school’s student performance score at Clark up by 10 points to 65.8 by the end of 2013.

Board members noted that the scale will need to be adjusted for a new accountability system to be implemented by the state.

On 2011-2012 state report cards, Green and Ashe received D grades. Dibert and Clark received “T” grades, indicating that they are turnaround schools with low student performance that have recently taken over by a charter organization.

This is the first official school year Langston Hughes has a charter with FirstLine Schools.

The board’s major long-term financial goal was to make sure all of the K-8 schools have a 10 percent fund balance, relative to annual operating expenses, by the end of the 2016 school year.

The board also outlined individual committee goals, plans to strengthen the FirstLine Schools “brand” and ways to rearrange the board’s committees, including plans to possibly eliminate the parental concerns and complaints committee.

Board member Monique Cola said that having a committee to deal with parental concerns and complaints could cross the line into “micromanaging.”

Other members agreed, but board vice president Gregory St. Etienne also pointed out that it’s still important for board members to be involved when it comes to listening to parental concerns.

“It’s valuable to understand who our parents are,” St. Etienne said. He suggested that board members voluntarily sit in on parent meetings.

“Otherwise,” he said, “we’re operating somewhat in the abstract.”

Kullman also complimented the board’s progress over the years, as it transformed from a small board managing only one school to one that manages five schools with close to 2,500 students.

“It’s a little unnerving that you’ve got that kind of responsibility,” Kullman said.

The board met Friday from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. It’s next regular board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 27.

 

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