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RSD’s school closure process has uneven effect on students at failing schools

When the Recovery School District closed the failing Murray Henderson Elementary last summer, Linda Wattigney’s three grandchildren were assigned to Paul Habans Charter School.

“Habans has been wonderful,” Wattigney said of the school, where kids performed well enough on standardized tests to receive a B grade from the state — but it wasn’t graded because it’s under new management.

That’s what should happen when the Recovery School District closes a substandard school: The students go to classrooms where they can learn.

The reality, however, is messier. Of the four schools that were closed last summer, students from two of them generally attend better ones — in the case of Habans, significantly better. Those who were at the other two mostly ended up in similar, poorly performing schools.

Veronica Washington’s four grandchildren are among the latter. She was told to apply to Benjamin Banneker Elementary School when James Weldon Johnson Elementary School was closed. Banneker is a D school.

Seth Wattigney, right, and Peter Schexnayder moved from Murray Henderson Elementary when it was closed due to low standardized test scores. They were fortunate, ending up at Paul Habans Charter School. Habans didn't receive a grade from the state this year because it's under new management, but its students did well enough to earn it a B. Students from two other closed schools weren't as lucky, ending up at schools that were about the same as the ones they left.

Jessica Williams / The Lens

Seth Wattigney, right, and Peter Schexnayder moved from Murray Henderson Elementary when it was closed due to low standardized test scores. They were fortunate, ending up at Paul Habans Charter School. Habans didn't receive a grade from the state this year because it's under new management, but its students did well enough to earn it a B. Students from two other closed schools weren't as lucky, ending up at schools that were about the same as the ones they left.

And at the end of this year, Banneker will close, too, pushing her grandchildren to their third school in three years.

Last summer, The Lens reported that most students leaving the RSD’s four closed schools were headed to other substandard schools. That was based on the 2012 state grades, which were the most recent available — and the ones that parents relied on while selecting schools this year.

Later, the state released the 2013 grades. They show that most schools in the city have boosted their test scores.

So we wanted to know: Based on the latest scores, are the students who left those failing schools in better academic environments? Or are their new schools still at the back of the pack?

The answer: It depends.

Most students who left Henderson and Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School are at schools graded C or better.

But about 60 percent of those who left Abramson Elementary and James Weldon Johnson Elementary are at D or F schools — or would be if they were graded.

Most Abramson, Johnson students moved to substandard schools

The Lens’ effort to learn what happened to students at these four failing schools was hampered by the RSD’s decision to withhold some information. It wouldn’t disclose exactly how many of the students from those four schools ended up at each destination school, saying student privacy, which is protected by federal law, could be compromised.

Instead, the RSD grouped destination schools by their letter grades. So while the district wouldn’t say how many students left Abramson and went to Benjamin Franklin Elementary, it did say how many of those students went to B schools, which includes Ben Franklin.

The RSD also provided the number of students who went to default schools, where students were assigned if their parents didn’t choose one. Overall, the RSD released figures for about 650 students who left the four closed schools and enrolled in another public school through the common enrollment process.

For Abramson, the default was ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary. About 49 percent of Abramson kids wound up there, according to figures provided by Gabriela Fighetti, executive director of enrollment for the RSD. Another 3 percent went to F schools.

Schaumburg’s 2013 School Performance Score would have earned it an F, just like the year before. But because it was taken over by the charter network ReNEW Schools this school year, the state didn’t issue a grade in 2013.

Including Schaumburg, more than half of Abramson students now attend schools that got an F or would have if they were graded. When you add in those who go to D schools, the percentage rises to 59 percent.

Another 22 percent are at schools graded C or better. The rest went to schools assigned a T or other schools that, like Schaumburg, weren’t graded.

However, most of those destination schools did post better scores, some by more than 10 points.

RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed said that shows undeniable progress. “We do have a ways to go,” she said, “but we’ve made such great, amazing gains in such a short time period.”

Students who left Johnson Elementary are in a similar situation. Just over half of them — 53 percent — were assigned to the nearby Benjamin Banneker Elementary, according to RSD figures.

Banneker got an F in 2012. Even fewer students passed standardized tests in 2013. But in 2013, because the state changed its grading scale, it received a D.

Largely due to Banneker’s better grade, RSD figures show that most Johnson students — about 61 percent — ended up at D schools.

Another 28 percent went to C or better schools, and a handful went to F schools. The rest ended up at ungraded or T schools.

Mays, Henderson students fare better

The RSD gave students at Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School priority in OneApp because no charter operator would take over the school.

As The Lens reported this summer, most of those students are at better schools as a result: 55 percent of Mays kids now attend schools graded C or better. Just 11 percent are at D or F schools.

Most students at Henderson, the smallest of the four closed schools, now attend Habans or schools graded C or better. Although Habans received a D in 2012, enough students passed the test in 2013 to earn it a B. However, it didn’t get a grade because it’s under new management this year.

Seth’s grandparents, William and Linda, love Habans because they work well with Seth, who has autism.

“He’s learning so much. I can’t believe it,” said William Wattigney. Seth was more specific: “I learn maths and subtracts, addition, multiplication, anything.”

Many of the destination schools for Henderson and Mays students benefited from the state’s change in its grading formula, put into place in 2013. Some of those scores increased by more than 10 points.

Exceptions to state grading obscure picture

Under its grading system, the state wipes the slate clean for failing schools under new management. And in 2013, the state changed its grading scale, which made it easier for some poorly-performing schools to receive higher grades.

Abramson Elementary illustrates how these policies make it hard to assess whether students in the city’s worst students are being moved to better classrooms, or simply shuffled to other underperforming schools.

Based on 2012 test scores, 77 percent of students who left Abramson now attend an F or T school. When you look at 2013 scores, it’s just 17 percent.

But that doesn’t tell the full story. Nearly half of the Abramson students who participated in the city’s common enrollment process were assigned to ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary. Based on how few kids passed their tests in 2013, Schaumburg would have gotten an F.

But because Schaumburg was taken over by the charter network ReNEW Schools, the state didn’t issue a grade in 2013.

Under the state’s scoring system, schools in their first year of new management aren’t graded. And for the next two years, regardless of their score, those schools are given a T to denote that they are in transition.

The RSD excluded Schaumburg and other schools without grades when it calculated how many of the destination schools were failing. If the district had included Schaumburg, the percentage of former Abramson students at failing schools this year would be 51 percent, not 17.

Fighetti said she feels good about Schaumburg’s future under ReNEW’s management. “We are glad that families decided to enroll there,” she said.

Overall, 13 schools in the city — about one in seven — would have received a D or F based on their 2013 test scores. Instead, they got a T or were ungraded.

What about the other schools attended by former Abramson students? Because of changes to the state’s grading formula, about half of those schools would have received a lower grade in 2013 if they had been evaluated under the old formula.

In 2013, the state changed its grading scale for School Performance Scores, as well as what factors into those scores. As a result, scores that would have been a high F are now a low D. On the other end of the scale, schools that would’ve earned a low A are now a high B.

Many of those destination schools would have received lower grades under the old system, although they generally posted higher School Performance Scores.

“While our students certainly have a long way to go, what you see is that these students did have access to better schools and are at better schools,” Fighetti said.

However, she said she wished “every parent would have submitted a OneApp,” which she said would’ve given them better options for their kids.

Brighter future for Washington?

The RSD will close Banneker, along with two other RSD schools, at the end of the school year. This time, about 600 Banneker and A.P. Tureaud Elementary students will receive first preference at any of the district’s other chartered elementary schools, just like it did for Mays students last year. Another high school, Walter L. Cohen, will graduate its last class after being phased out for years.

That’s because the RSD’s pool of directly run schools has all but disappeared in recent years as the district has closed schools and turned others over to charter operators.

And like most students who left Mays, Washington’s grandchildren could end up at better schools.

She said she’s upset, though, that she and her daughter have had to move them so many times. “If they knew that the school was closing, they shouldn’t have recommended that the kids go from Johnson to Banneker,” she said.

Washington hopes to get her grandchildren in Lafayette Academy, where three other grandchildren are.

Lafayette is a C school – but it would have gotten a D, had it been graded under the old system.

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  • Alan Maclachlan

    And there’s the fundamentally dishonest sleight-of-hand behind the oft-repeated claim that “only 6%” (or some similarly low number) of New Orleans students now attend failing schools; if the school is in fact failing, just hand it over to new management and stop grading it for awhile.

    From the article;

    “Under its grading system, the state wipes the slate clean for failing schools under new management. And in 2013, the state changed its grading scale, which made it easier for some poorly-performing schools to receive higher grades.

    Abramson Elementary illustrates how these policies make it hard to assess whether students in the city’s worst students are being moved to better classrooms, or simply shuffled to other underperforming schools.

    Based on 2012 test scores, 77 percent of students who left Abramson now attend an F or T school. When you look at 2013 scores, it’s just 17 percent.”

  • 503to504

    Our family moved to New Orleans in June and had the luck of being Round 3 OneAppers. My children attend a D school and while both have done well personally, I find that they often are stuck in classrooms with teachers who don’t know how to manage classroom behavior without resorting to automatic punishment. There’s no dialouge, it’s just “oh, you’re talking so we won’t do any classwork until you’re all quiet”. We live two blocks from Baby Ben and would like my kids to be able to walk to school like they did in our old city and are so discouraged that we seem to have almost zero chance of getting in to any of the schools we’re interested in.

    NOTHING about this system is fair or equitable. Now 600 kids automatically get priority placement in schools with already minimal to no seats available? How is any of this legal??? In the state of Oregon, there charters laws are written so that charter schools must be non-profit and have a blind lottery. The only priority that is given is to siblings of already enrolled students and the only entrance requirements can be second language program related.

    The whole system is mortifying. People looked at me like I had two heads when we told then our kids were in public school here, but I am a huge proponent of public education and it breaks my heart that so many people in this community choose not to invest in public education here.

  • Alan Maclachlan

    A perfect summation of what’s broken about a system which so many in power trumpet as a wonderful innovation. Stick around a little longer and you’ll discover that the real engine pulling this crazy train is money flowing to its engineers, while most children caught up in the system are relegated to the caboose.

  • nickelndime

    RSD spokesperson Zoey is on a money high. So is Fighetti, executive director of enrollment for the RSD. And so it goes for White, Dobard, et al. They will say anything, do anything, to keep that high. And as if the State and the LDOE are not bad enough, there are the “nonprofit” (in name only) charter boards which are composed of politically-connected individuals. Connected charter management organizations (CMOs) receive federal money funnelled through the RSD/LDOE and New Schools for New Orleans (i3 grants) to take over failing schools. How can anyone tell what is going on when the RSD fails to give letter grades to schools in transition (changing charter operators)? It’s subterfuge that makes the percentages look good. Lies, lies, and more lies! Ben Franklin Elementary (Baby Ben) was a CityWide Access School (CWAS) before Katrina, and a family had more of a chance of getting their child(ren) into that school even with entrance testing, than what is going on now. Then there is the Franklin Elementary Principal – another piece of work. Charlotte has been in DROP for…(ever)! LOL! The OPSB should have done more right things (morally correct) after Katrina rather than just trying to hold on to a few good/great schools. Closing the barn door now? Too late!

  • disqus_qtvF4sydqM

    Really, Jessica. None of this is new. Please report on what happened to McDonogh 42 when it was taken over by the Choice Foundation. Where did the students go? What is the new/old letter grade now? How did the test scores look last year? This inquiring mind wants to know.

  • nickelndime

    Well yeah, that’s correct, disqus_qtvF4sydqM (I love your handle), but Jessica’s story is NOT actually old…news. It’s more like the EverReady bunny – it just keeps going on and on and on…. Choice Foundation is “one” of the connected (in tune with the State/LDOE/RSD/BESE hidden agenda) nonprofits that do exactly what federal and state interests dictate. Therefore, these CMOs (which usually start out as a “primary” 1-school-to-run nonprofit) quickly get on the inside track and are rewarded with more schools to operate (i.e., takeovers) with more public money (in the millions). One can fill in the blanks over and over again. For example, Einstein (which happens to be an OPSB authorized charter) happens to sit in an RSD-controlled site (Village de l’Est). So, in order to remain at that site, what does the RSD/NSNO do?! Offer the nonprofit “Einstein” federal money (i3 grant) to become a Charter Managementment Organization (CMO) to take over the Intercultural Charter School (no letter grade this past year and none for the next 2 years!!!) OMG! The principal becomes a CEO (with 2 RSD campuses to oversee) at a salary of $183,000. The Einstein Board has a president that is employed by the RSD FirstLine Schools (hello, Stephen Rosenthal and others). But, without Jessica’s reporting, would the public actually have any clue at all. Probably not. Worse yet, public attention is like…that of a gnat?! And that is exactly what the State counts on. Little or no attention span. So, who is actually keeping count in the name of public interest? The City? The State? The Feds?

  • nickelndime

    Go, Alan! Glad to see that you are posting those insightful comments. It goes a long way – more than you think. I see you have corrected the N. Rampart moniker. Not that anything is wrong with N. Rampart. Grew up and grew old in the area. Ha!

  • RAnn

    While the information about the schools is useful to some extent, I’m a lot more interested in the kids. I’d love to be able to get data (by some traceable but not identifiable number, not name) about students rather than schools. How did “Johnny’s” scores change as a result of changing schools? If you track the kids from a particular school, what is happening to their scores? In other words, is school X “better” because it starts with better kids or does it teach more to those it has?

  • nickelndime

    Schools in transition receive a “T” score. Then for 2 years, the tookover’d school does not receive a grade. Is all of this for real? Well I guess, when those in control, control the controls and the money, then this is exactly what one gets. OUT OF CONTROL! Federal money and outside interests back these endeavors in the corrupt state of Louisiana. How much rope can the citizenry stand before somebody gets hung? Somebody, please give John White a shoutout and get him the hell out of here. He is a minor. There are bigger problems. This is a very weak state.