How do you tell a kindergartener that his school is closing?
Anthony and Alicia Parker, both 29, had to have that discussion with their 5-year-old son Anthony Jr. last week. On Friday, the state school board closed the kindergarten-through-fourth-grade Lagniappe Academies, effective at the end of this school year. This is the school’s fifth year of operation.
The decision followed a scathing report detailing numerous special-education violations, and campus efforts to cover them up after the state issued its first report in November. Board member Dan Henderson said the school had one week to respond to the state’s report, but it wasn’t enough time and that the charter school was denied due process.
The 160 students were given one week to apply for a new school through the OneApp enrollment process, which has already closed to other students in the city. They also will be given preference in the first round of placement, said officials with the Recovery School District, which oversees Lagniappe. The unified application is also used by some charters overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, the other oversight agency that grants charters in the city.
The school received a C letter grade from the state last year, when schools were graded on a curve, and a B in the 2012-13 school year. On Monday, parents bemoaned the possibility that they could be assigned to lower-performing schools through the OneApp process.
The following interview with the Parkers took place at the school’s campus in the Treme neighborhood on Friday, just as school was letting out. It has been condensed for clarity, and the Parkers reviewed and approved of the edits.
Q: How and when did you find out what was happening with the school?
Anthony: A lot of things have been up in the air for the last couple months in regards to whether or not the charter was getting closed, shut down. Nothing official was ever told to us. We were just hearing things by word of mouth and it was all just a bunch of speculation from administrators and even the board as well. Nobody really knew what was going on.
We didn’t, up until literally this week, know how close to the edge that the school was. Even some administrators were under the impression that everything was fine, that they were going to be able to transition back to Orleans Parish [School Board oversight], get a building and continue with business as usual. But less than 24 hours later, it was, ‘No, none of that’s taking place. Your school is closing. Gotta find another place for your children to go to.’ Parents have to scramble. So it’s, you know, a little bit frustrating and disheartening, and now we’re stuck explaining to our kids why they won’t see these teachers, these faces, these friends anymore after the next two months.
Q: What are you going to do now?
Anthony: We want our voices heard. We don’t want to put ourselves in the situation where again we are sitting in the same circumstances, where we’re sitting back here in March again [next year] preparing them for another transition, when we think everything is safe, sound, and set.
It’s not more or less what we’re going to do, but preparing our [school’s] children for what’s happening to them.
Q: What did you tell your son?
Anthony: We are very straightforward with him. We don’t sugar-coat anything. As involved as we are with this, we try to keep him right on our footsteps with it as well.
So we did let him know [earlier in the week] that there’s a good possibility that Lagniappe is closing.
Later on that night he looked at us and said, ‘So does that mean I don’t have to go to school tomorrow because they’re shutting down my school?’
And we said, ‘No, that’s not what that means.’
And he said, ‘So, does that mean next year, when I start first grade, that I won’t be in a first-grade class with any of my friends?’
And that’s when we had to explain to him the possibility of, ‘Yeah, you may not see these same children anymore.’
‘You’re going to start anew, but we’re always going to be here to support you to make sure were putting you in the situation…to make sure you’re going to grow.’
It’s just, it’s hard, knowing that you have something good. It’s hard to know that you may not ever find that again. You know when a parent is able to fall in love with a school just as much as their child is, that’s a union that should never be taken apart.
This is my first experience dealing with this public school system that Orleans Parish has set up. I know it’s nothing as it was prior to the Katrina.
[Referring to the two dozen parents and former staff members cited in the state’s critical report:]
To see something so good be struck down by so few people who no longer are part of a working system is disheartening. It hurts. Twenty-four people put up a voice, saying that they were uncomfortable with the way a few people [at Lagniappe] had handled their business. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But out of that 24, who is currently still here and are these problems that they were having still legitimate?
Q: The state did identify some issues in their report. Do you understand the state’s side?
Alicia: I do understand the state’s side. From what we know, some of things have been corrected, but not all. When it comes down to the state’s side, then you go after who was in charge. Who was supposed to have this done? That’s the person you remove. You don’t remove 160 kids over one person’s, maybe even two’s, mistakes. You don’t do that. You find a better head, and you put them over those kids.
But you don’t separate… I can’t… This is a family. You don’t break up a family over something someone else did. That’s not fair to our kids. And don’t get me wrong. She’s [Kendall Petri] a great principal and I love her. But I’d rather see her step down or removed than have all these kids have to be placed into different schools.
Anthony: Now I understand the state’s side of it, too, but I understand this as well. The state has laws and rules for everything. I mean, that’s their job. But because three people speed, does that mean that nobody gets to drive? Because one person gets into a car accident, does that mean everybody has to drive a certain car now to avoid these accidents? Yes, mistakes were made and mistakes are going to be made. But this isn’t the only school that made those mistakes.
If you truly feel that the violations were so egregious, so terrible, so wrong why not step in and remove that person immediately from their position. No action was taken in regards to that.
They had their findings. And from what I understand, they gave the school time to correct that and they have been correcting that, but you still decide to change the course of life for 160 people, plus the staff and administrators, based on a couple of mistakes that other schools have made too, that are failings schools.
But because this is an independent school with an independent charter that doesn’t have the political backing of some of the other charter networks, you decide to tear it down because it’s convenient.
Alicia: I also feel like the state is kind of at fault also, because if you found out that these things were going on, as the state, you should have immediately had people contact these families to find out, ‘Do you know that this is going on? Do you know if your child belongs in one of these programs? Do you know any of this?’ But y’all kept all that away from us. You didn’t contact us. So you’re just as wrong as the person who was hiding.
Q: What communication have you received from the school or the state?
Anthony: The state has not contacted myself or my wife. Personally I have not received any type of notification letter… letting us know what may have been going on or what the consequences may be in regards to this. We’ve received no news, no options, no choices. You know, it’s been handled poorly.
I will say [Recovery School District Superintendent] Patrick Dobard did call me yesterday and left me a voicemail asking me to call him back. But in regards to what? You want a call back now that I’m pissed off? Because I found out? I had to go and find out that you were going to close my child’s school and you heard that I found out already, that I beat you to the punch. That’s why you want to talk to me now. You can come sit down and talk to me face to face. And you can explain to my son why you want to close down his school, why you want to change the course of his life. Because that’s a conversation I shouldn’t have to have because you didn’t do your job to prepare me to have it.
You sprung this on every single parent in this place.
Alicia: Its like [the state officials] didn’t think of any of this. The only thing they thought of was themselves.
Anthony: Like, ‘What’s convenient for us, not the parent?’
This is what really upset me, out of all the things possible: when we found out Tuesday that there was going to be a [state school board] meeting held on Thursday in Baton Rouge, but the meeting was for 3 o’clock.
So you mean to tell me that the one chance we have to unify as parents and let you know our side of things you have a meeting at 3 o’clock, 70 miles away. Where is that convenient at for these parents? How is that helping us? We put you guys in these positions. Because yes, my tax dollars are paying you. I’m paying you to be in a position to protect myself and my child and this is how you turn around and handle your business.
Why do I want the first round of OneApp when I made my choice last year for my son to come here? And I was proud of that choice because this is a damn good school. And now my choice is being taken away from me.
Why did you choose Lagniappe?
Anthony: We had just moved back in April 2014. We wanted to come back because we knew about a majority of the schools down here. We grew up in New Orleans. We stayed away in Baton Rouge for about four years.
Studying the parent guide for schools, I was drawn first to Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which is centrally located and some of the afterschool programs they had sounded great.
But when the initial sign up [happened] and there was 3,000 people wrapped around the building, it’s like, ‘Let me try to find a Plan B.’
So I started looking more into the book and I started noticing the trends. I was surprised that they had so many schools that were trending fail and then got worse, so I’m like, ‘Skip over that.’
I found Lagniappe, who went from a D to a C to a B average but they kept the class sizes small. All of their fourth-graders passed their LEAP [standardized state test]. You’ve got a maximum of 20 students in each class. You’re getting 100 percent on your test scores. You’ve improved every year since you’ve been open. I think this is what I’m going to go with.
I walked inside [the day of the Lagniappe tour]. We just fell in love with them right there.
We are fortunate enough to have a school where literally the parents and the children, majority speaking, are both in love with everything, despite the fact that they may be missing some programs here and there. But you’ve got to expect that because it’s a small school size. They can’t cater to everybody’s needs, but they’re catering to the major needs.