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New Orleans charter school operators turn to Baton Rouge for expansion

If demand continues, the city’s largest charter operator, KIPP New Orleans, could have 19 schools in Orleans and East Baton Rouge parishes in the next seven years.

Collegiate Academies, which now runs three schools, plans to take over up to seven RSD schools in parishes around the state, starting in 2015.

And Spirit of Excellence Academy will launch its second school in 2014 – but in Baton Rouge, not New Orleans.

The expansion to Baton Rouge and other parts of the state are a sign that there’s not much more room for charter organizations to grow in Orleans Parish. Most charter operators in New Orleans have expanded by taking over schools directly run by the Recovery School District or those run by other organizations that haven’t turned them around. Now there are only five directly run schools left in the RSD’s portfolio here, and fewer schools are failing now than in past years.

“We may see a little bit of a slowdown, at least in New Orleans, in terms of a turnaround pace,” said Michael Stone, chief external relations officer for New Schools For New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that supports local charter schools.

Wednesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved applications from 12 nonprofit organizations to run charter schools within the RSD. Many of the applications for new schools — some submitted by familiar faces in New Orleans, others by newcomers to the state — are for RSD schools in East Baton Rouge Parish.

There’s no guarantee that these groups will end up running any schools; that depends on whether RSD has any schools to hand over.

Turnaround charter applications approved (based in or headed to New Orleans)
Operator Number of schools nationwide Approved for Where they’ll expand
FirstLine Schools 5 1 more high school in 2014 Orleans
KIPP New Orleans 11 (two have yet to open) 8 more schools by 2020 Orleans, East Baton Rouge
Friends of King Schools 2 3 more schools by 2016 Orleans, East Baton Rouge
Spirit of Excellence Academy Inc. 1 1 more school by 2014 East Baton Rouge
YES Prep Public Schools 13 6 more schools by 2020 Orleans, East Baton Rouge
Green Dot Public Schools 18 6 more schools by 2020 Orleans, East Baton Rouge
Celerity Schools Inc. 8 12 more schools by 2018 Jefferson, Orleans, Caddo, East Baton Rouge
Source: Louisiana Department of Education

New Schools for Baton Rouge, a sister organization of the one in New Orleans, was launched in early 2012 by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Two former state education officials have taken lead roles: CEO and founder Chris Meyer had served as director of the Recovery School District’s Office of Portfolio and as an advisor to former State Superintendent Paul Pastorek. Chief Operating Officer Catherine Pozniak had been executive director of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Meyer said Baton Rouge schools need to be overhauled, much as the ones in New Orleans were just after Hurricane Katrina. In an area of East Baton Rouge Parish called the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone, there are 26 schools, all of which are rated D or F by the state, serving about 15,000 students. The RSD has taken over eight of those schools, most of which were charters.

The first group of charters approved in Baton Rouge “were sort of less than stellar,” Meyer said. As it became clear those schools continued to struggle, “advocates said, ‘What we really need is schools that have a track record of excellence.’”

Enter his organization. Meyer said he recruited New Orleans-based operators Collegiate and KIPP to Baton Rouge – as well as YES Prep Public Schools from Houston, Green Dot Public Schools from Los Angeles, and three other charter organizations from around the country. Green Dot was founded by Steve Barr, head of Future Is Now Schools, which oversees John McDonogh Senior High School.

KIPP already had planned to open two more schools in New Orleans – a primary school and a middle school – but the approvals this week cleared them for another New Orleans high school and seven other schools, either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, KIPP Director of Advocacy Jonathan Bertsch said.

Collegiate’s growth plan is for seven schools around the state by 2020, but spokeswoman Allison Zimmer said there could be more — as long as there’s a need and its existing ones are flourishing.

Charles J. Southall III, board chairman of Spirit of Excellence, which runs Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy in Central City, said his organization has always planned to expand to Baton Rouge, even before he started talking to Meyer.

Just like in New Orleans, there are many low-income students in low-performing schools in Baton Rouge, Southall said, and they’re “the kids we look for to turn around.”

The two-school charter management organization will have a CEO and a central office, though each school will keep its autonomy, he said. The board is interviewing for principals for the new school.

Even with the expansion to Baton Rouge and other RSD schools in the state, some charter organizations continue to focus on New Orleans. Although the number of failing schools has decreased dramatically since immediately after the storm, “we know that we are not right now in a situation where there is a high quality option for every child,” Stone said.

New opportunities may arise for proven charter operators if those now holding the charters fail to improve performance. The implementation of new, more rigorous grade-level expectations and standardized tests for students – guided by the Common Core State Standards – may cause many schools’ scores to drop, Stone said.

FirstLine Schools, the only operator approved with a growth plan solely in New Orleans, plans to open a sixth school in 2014.* The school will partner with Delgado Community College and focus solely on career and technical education. “There’s a real gap” in that type of training in the city, CEO Jay Altman said.

When asked if he ever wants to start charters elsewhere, Altman didn’t answer directly. “I get asked that question a lot,” he said. “We are really focusing on the schools we have right now, trying to make them better and better.”

*Correction: This story originally said that FirstLine plans to open a sixth high school in 2014; it plans to open a sixth school. (Aug. 15, 2013)

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