An infant rattled his mother’s car keys in blissful ignorance as she wondered aloud where his brothers would go to school in the fall. Two students in matching school uniforms whispered and appeared confused by the worked-up parents standing around them. And a toddler covered her ears with her hands as a stranger yelled.
The afternoon atmosphere at the Olive Branch Café was anything but peaceful as parents of nearby John Dibert Elementary School gathered last week to understand the coming upheaval at the school. Operated by the state’s Recovery School District for the past four years, the stucco-clad Orleans Avenue kindergarten-through-eighth-grade elementary is scheduled to reopen in the fall as a charter school operated by First Line Schools, a nonprofit entity.
Nerves were taut. Some were frustrated. Most of the veteran teachers would not be returning. Pre-kindergaren classes were eliminated.
And LaToya Fields was just plain angry.
“The teachers at this school know my children,” she said. “They know my cell phone number and if there is a problem we know how to talk about it. Why do we have to start over again?
“My kids are comfortable at this school. I am comfortable with this school. If y’all want a different school, you go to a different school.”
It was a familiar scene for those who have witnessed such a change in New Orleans, which now has more than 60 percent of public-school students attending charter schools, more than any other American city. Such an experiment in urban education is unmatched since desegregation And the scene here likely is one that will play out elsewhere this year, with three more schools being converted to charters. But none of that was comforting to the parents who were just learning of changes.
Annette Lopez and other Dibert parents were there to talk about changes at the neighborhood school that many of them had come to see as one of few stable things in their tumultuous post-Katrina lives.
“I expected my two little boys to go to school with their big siblings,” Lopez said. “Can someone tell me where I am supposed to send them now?”
Lopez registered her two children for pre-kindergarten at Dibert months ago. No one told her then that the school was dropping the program, or even changing leadership, though the matter was decided in the fall.
“Now all the programs I would send my child to are filled,” she said.
In Louisiana, the state covers only part of the tab on public pre-K, leaving the school operator to fill a gap equaling about $2,000 per child, and pay for additional costs that come with educating the younger children.
First Line CEO Jay Altman said when parents were registering for the program, his organization was hoping that the RSD would accept its offer “to host” a program funded by the RSD. The idea of a RSD-charter partnership appears highly unlikely, however, given the steep cuts made this year to the state education budget, and the district’s resistance to taking on financial responsibilities at schools it has given up.
RSD spokeswoman Siona LaFrance said that the RSD has not subsidized pre-K at charters in the past and has no plans to change that policy.
“The RSD plays no role in determining which charters have pre-K,” she said in an e-mail. The state-run district estimates the annual cost of serving one 4-year-old at $7,100, not including start-up costs.
The pre-K conundrum is perhaps the least emotional of the questions parents want answered. Harder to assess is how the change in leadership will change the quality of education being offered at Dibert. Every year, the state scores public elementary schools using a calculation based on student test scores and attendance.
In 2009, Dibert fell short of the passing mark of 60, earning a score of 56.7 on a scale that theoretically tops out near 200. Still, the school’s test scores were climbing. In 2008, 24 percent of its eighth-graders passed the English Language Arts section of the LEAP test; the next year that figure rose to 67 percent. In math, the percentage passing went from 20 percent to 46 percent in that same time.
For context, it’s useful to look at the other two schools First Line operates in Orleans Parish: Arthur Ashe Charter School and Samuel J. Green Charter School. Both schools have shown steep improvements since the nonprofit took over.
Last year, Greene earned a 66.5 on its school performance score and Ashe, a 67.2. Test scores also point to progress. In the year before Greene’s 2006 takeover, only 11 percent of eighth graders passed the English Language Arts portion of the LEAP test and 8 percent math. Last year, 55 percent passed the English section and 72 percent passed math. The math score puts the school 13 percentage points above the state average.
While only in its second year, improvements have been recorded at Ashe as well, with LEAP scores making gains between 2008 and 2009, and fourth-graders outperforming the state averages in English and science on the LEAP test in ‘09.
Dibert teachers and parents say that numbers don’t tell the whole story. Children are learning, they say, and families benefitting from an intimate, familial environment. This, they fear, will be lost to the takeover.
“We been through a whole lot together and as close as we are, I don’t think that we can have that again,” said Harriet Welch, a grandmotherly teacher from New Orleans who has taught in the city for 10 years, the past four at Dibert. She will not be back in the fall. “I feel like I was not invited.”
Low test scores at Dibert only accelerated a process underway since soon after Katrina when Mid-City neighbors and parents began discussing reopening the school as a community-run charter. In 2006, the Mid-City Neighborhood Association applied to the Louisiana Department of Education for the charter.
When that application was rejected, the group began seeking out charter management organizations to team up with. After a few failed matchmaking efforts, First Line got the support of the committee and in October, the state approved First Line’s application to take over the school. While the PTA and First Line say there were plenty of opportunities for parents to learn about the changes, some parents say that no one from the school or the RSD reached out to make sure that more than a small number of connected parents were informed.
“We never received any information, nothing at all until my child’s teacher stopped me in the hall two days ago and told me, ” Dibert mom Cheryl Conner said.
Conner lives around the corner from the school and has sent her two children there since it reopened after Katrina.
“I am quite upset,” she said. “These teachers have done an excellent job with my children. They are on the honor roll. I am worried that once the teachers they know leave, their grades will drop and my kids will be pushed out too.”
Parent Donnica Conway Strawder said she is excited about the takeover, and that a silent majority of parents at the school are too. A member of the PTA, she said parents involved in the chartering committee told parents in the association of the charter’s plans. The parent organization then sent information about meetings to the school for distribution, she said. Why it doesn’t seem to have reached some parents, she does not know.
“I am not sure how they did not know about this,” Strawder said. “Apparently, the notices didn’t reach them and neither did the newspaper.”
Strawder said that the real breakdown in communication was between teachers unhappy about the change in leadership and First Line. “Teachers are fueling the anger to advance their own agenda,” she said.
When conventional schools are taken over by charters, the new leadership hires its own staff. Some employees stay on, but typically, many leave either voluntarily, or because they are not rehired. Altman said the organization guaranteed jobs to all Dibert teachers who earned high marks — a four or five on a five-point scale— on an annual teacher performance review done by the district.
“We just said, interview first to make sure there is a fit,” Altman said.
Those teachers who scored below a four on the review were invited to apply, along with anyone else interested in working at the school. About a third of the existing staff was eligible for a guaranteed spot and of those, a number had informed First Line they would not be returning, he said.
“Our No. 1 goal is to create a good school, and because of that, we base all hiring decisions on performance,” Altman said.
In response to fears that the new Dibert staff would lack the experience at the school now, he said that the organization prides itself on maintaining staffs with a mix of veteran teachers and younger staff. At Ashe and Greene combined, there are only two first-year teachers and they do not teach full course loads, he said. While Altman could not provide an exact number of second year teachers on the two staffs, he could recall no more than four between the two schools and said that typically young Teach for America participants make up a “very low percentage.”
Teachers at Wednesday’s meeting complained about the rehiring process and said that school leadership was not upfront about the changes being planned. Principal Chad Webb declined an interview request and referred all questions to First Line. But at last week’s meeting, Dean of Students Charles Medley did not dispute the allegations.
“Everyone is to blame, “ Medley said. “Everyone wasn’t doing what they were supposed to be doing all year.” “This has a lot to do with adults, not kids,” he added. Medley is leaving Dibert at the end of this school year to take a job with ReNew Charter Management Organization, another local school management company. This year, ReNEW will take over Laurel and Live Oak elementary schools, two non-charters now run by the Recovery School District.
Medley warned parents and teachers that if they failed to present a united front, and “all this arguing happens in front of First Line,” they would be “shut out.”
Yet in one recent power play over Joseph A. Craig Elementary School in Treme, it was First Line that got a door closed. After community members raised concerns about local voice in the RSD decision to hand the school over the nonprofit, First Line dropped its bid for the school saying that it did not want to start a school without the full support of the community.
“In the absence of that, it would be really difficult to design Craig as a community school that fully takes advantage of the resources and traditions” of the neighborhood,” Tony Recasner, FirstLine’s president and the co-founder of the city’s first charter school, told The Times-Picayune.
Caroline Roemer Shirley, the executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools believes that without changes in the way charters are awarded, conflicts will continue. “We need to figure out a better process with multiple opportunities for public involvement,” Shirley said.
There is room in the state’s charter school law to allow for parents to vote on whether or not the state should allow a school to be taken over. Such a vote may help ensure more public outreach is done by charter school operators and the RSD, and should be considered, she said.
“The charter movement is about empowering communities to make choices about their children’s educations, but instead right now it is something people feel that is being being done to them, and that must change.