By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
Uncertainties about the relationship between charter schools and the neighborhoods in which they are located continues to dog New Orleans school officials as they work out the final details of a master plan for rebuilding and assigning public school facilities.
With only six of 68 Recovery School District schools now in permanent facilities, completing the master plan is critical to making progress on a building spree that is projected to cost roughly $2 billion and take a decade to complete.
A public meeting held Tuesday at one of the six finished RSD schools began a final series of public meetings before Orleans Parish School Board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote on a final plan in April. While the focus of Tuesday’s meeting at Langston Hughes Academy in Gentilly was school assignments in its council district, District A, a consistent thread linking speakers across schools was concern about where to put facilities in an open-enrollment system wherein most students go to school outside of their neighborhood.
“As schools become more successful, there will be more competition for seats and so we should be reserving seats for students nearby,” said Joe Daschbach, chief operating officer for Lagniappe Academies. That school opened in the fall with an enrollment drawn largely from Treme, and it plans to keep the student body largely neighborhood-based.
Because construction on a Treme facility was not done when the school year began, students began the year in classrooms Uptown, costing the school thousands of dollars in busing expenses before a temporary modular facility near Congo Square opened in December. The draft plan does not include recommendations for a permanent location for the school. At Tuesday’s meeting, Daschbach lobbied RSD officials to assign it a home at the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School site in Treme.
“The neighborhoods in this city deserve a little stability,” Daschbach said. School officials estimate that nearly 80 percent of students at the small school live in Treme.
Other charter representatives voiced a similar call for permanent locations to reflect student origins.
“Our school is by and for a geographic neighborhood,” said Brod Bagert, a member of the board of Morris Jeff Community School in Mid-City. “It’s important that while we are open to students from everywhere in the city, we continue to serve our neighborhood children.”
Bagert was at the meeting to ask RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas to rebuild the school at the Fisk-Howard site where it is now housed.
Vallas said Tuesday that he could not promise Daschbach or any school leaders a facility before city residents weighed in at this month’s public meetings.
“Lagniappe may very well end up in Wheatley, but we are going to let this process take its course,” Vallas said.
The course, so far, has been a winding one. In 2008, three years after the RSD took control of most of the schools in Orleans Parish, the state authority adopted its six-phase master plan for facilities and began on a first spurt of school construction. In August, FEMA signed off a $1.8 billion school settlement that will pay for the first three phases of the plan, freeing up money for the RSD to begin on more schools.
In the years since 2008, however, the city’s demographics have shifted and the politics of schools changed, causing a need for the plan to be updated. It is those updates that will be done through this month’s process. At the same time, however, a debate is going on in Baton Rouge and in school-board rooms about creating attendance zones for schools.
Last year, legislation to create mandatory attendance zones for public schools authored by state Rep. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, passed in the Senate but was left to die in committee after negotiations with bill opponents led to its language changing to make the attendance zones voluntary. Still, an allowance for schools to give preference in the surrounding neighborhood was added to another piece of legislation and passed.
Opponents of Morrell’s mandatory-attendance-zone measure said that the bill is premature given that final school assignments have not been decided and many families are still in transition after Katrina.
“We still have not aligned the population with the buildings and it will be years before we do,” charter school advocate Leslie Jacobs said.
Meanwhile, political pressure for neighborhood schools has been a stickler for the state as it struggles to maintain support for its reform efforts.
At a contentious BESE hearing about returning schools to local control, charter school critics pointed to the lack of neighborhood attendance zones as one of many difficulties for parents navigating a decentralized system.
“They say, ‘I had to go to 26 schools to get my child into a school,’ ” BESE member Linda Johnson of Plaquemine said. “That ought not to happen. All of these schools ought to be neighborhood schools, whether they are charter or not.”
In an effort to head off further division, the RSD is now considering policies that address concerns but stop short of mandating attendance zones. The policies would likely address concerns aired by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.
“We think there are a lot of benefits and it is less expensive” to have students attending school in their neighborhoods, said Tara O’Neill, policy manager for the Cowen Institute. “But we want to make sure that whatever policy is put into place does not game the system by making the zones really large or really small and leaving pockets that no one is really serving.”
RSD spokesman Ken Jones said Friday the officials are considering bringing a policy before BESE for consideration, but want to “understand the full impact of enrollment preferences on charter schools’ eligibility to receive federal start-up grants,” before doing so.