By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

After weeks of heated debate over the future of Charles J. Colton Middle School on St. Claude Avenue, city and state elected officials are asking that Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek put a six-month hold on the discussion and conduct a fresh “community process” moderated by a third party independent of the Recovery School District.

The letter to Pastorek asserts that the review period is necessary because of a lack of “public input” on the RSD’s recommendation to give the refurbished campus to KIPP New Orleans Leadership Academy, known as KIPP NOLA, now located a few blocks from Colton in a temporary campus it shares with another KIPP academy. Parents who have been organizing against the KIPP move say the national charter operator should be given resources to build out the shared Frederick Douglass campus, farther down St. Claude Avenue, while the community chooses another operator for the Colton site.

“Before public meetings on the school happened, Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas has already promised Colton to KIPP, who in turn promised it to their families,” the letter says, calling the decision too important to be made “for expediency sake, behind closed doors.”

The letter was signed by the City Council member whose district includes the school, Kristin Gisleson Palmer, as well as fellow members Jackie Clarkson, Jon Johnson, Susan Guidry and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Five state lawmakers also signed the letter: House Speaker Jim Tucker, Reps. Jared Brossett and Helena Moreno and Sens. Karen Carter Peterson and J.P. Morrell. Orleans Parish School Board Vice President Thomas Robichaux also signed.

The state does not appear likely to overturn Vallas’ recommendation that KIPP take over the school. In a statement emailed to The Lens, Pastorek echoed Vallas’ suggestion that community members opposed to KIPP apply for a charter to start a community school.

“While our most immediate and pressing aim is to meet the needs of students currently attending schools in temporary facilities in the Colton area, we’re continuing to work with local officials, groups and citizens to respond to their petitions, such as the request that we identify a location for a future neighborhood charter school,” Pastorek said.

The superintendent declined to take a direct position on the substance of the letter, or say whether he would institute a review period.

KIPP – for Knowledge Is Power Program – has established itself as a national charter operator able to take over public schools in low-income neighborhoods and raise test scores. KIPP’s approach combines strict discipline with highly regimented lessons and an emphasis on college preparedness. The widely copied model emphasizes improving student outcomes by creating a “school culture” of quiet hallways and orderly classrooms.

Students are instructed to walk the corridors in straight lines and can earn detention for failing to “track” the teacher with their eyes. The model has raised concerns from a cross-section of parents in the 9th Ward who say they want to develop a school program that reflects the diverse character of an area that is home to artists.

The school poised to take over the Colton campus emphasizes public service and giving students “the power to lead,” said KIPP Executive Director Rhonda Aluise.  She said the character of each KIPP academy is based on the needs and personality of students and staff. While KIPP New Orleans Leadership Academy does not have the gifted and talented program or arts programming that some 9th Ward parents say they want, such programs could be put in place if there is sufficient demand, Aluise said.

“There are certain things that are part of our program, like the emphasis on school culture, but we don’t have a set curriculum,” she said. In response to complaints about extended hours at the organization’s schools, she said KIPP is willing to experiment with the length of its school day.

The letter writers ask for public review focused on the Colton site, but the contention that the decision to go with KIPP took place behind closed doors reflects a broader critique of Vallas’ administration of the Recovery School District that goes back to creation of the School Facilities Master Plan, the system’s post-Katrina recovery blueprint.

Vallas said in an interview Thursday that he is pleased to see parents and elected officials engaging in debate over schools, though he is not swayed by their arguments. The RSD uses a “formula” to decide school assignments, he said, and using that methodology, the decision to assign the Colton building to KIPP was an “easy choice.”

“I thought KIPP was an appropriate model for the site and not only I thought so. There was unanimity among my staff on this recommendation,” he said.

Vallas, now in his last months as RSD superintendent,  said the formula takes account of demographics, where a school’s enrolled students live, how long those students have been learning in a temporary facility and the quality of the school program in question. In the past, former RSD spokesman Ken Jones emphasized that the decisions would be made on a “case-by-case basis.”

KIPP estimates that of the 1,700 students it’s educating at its 7 New Orleans schools, 185 live in the 70117 zip code that covers much of the 9th Ward, including the Colton site. Another 75 families living in 70117 have already applied to enroll at KIPP next year, according to the organization.

In the case of the 9th Ward KIPP relocation, the RSD and the charter operator had talked about the relocation opportunity for months before Vallas made his recommendation, KIPP’s Aluise said. She said she hopes to have more meetings with the community and remains optimistic that the Colton campus can be developed to meet the needs of all families interested in enrolling.

When asked if she thought the school assignment process had been “done behind closed doors” as alleged by local elected officials, Aluise paused before responding.

“It’s a hard question in hindsight,” she said. “We followed the process that was set forth to us as charter operators. We applied. We worked with the RSD to identify a facility. We attended the meetings we were asked to attend.  I don’t feel in any way that it was my responsibility to define the process.”

The state superintendent will make a final decision in June, Vallas said.

In the meantime, the RSD chief suggested that parents who want to see an alternative to KIPP in the area should begin working on an application to open a charter school at the Lorraine V. Hansberry Elementary School campus a few blocks from Colton, at the intersection of Clouet and North Villere streets. Under the state’s current master plan for school construction, the Hansberry campus won’t be rebuilt until the third phase of building, as yet unfunded and unscheduled. Vallas said that could change if parents begin organizing now. He compared the parents organizing for a non-KIPP option to parents in Mid-City who successfully fought for the Morris Jeff Community School. Both groups include middle-class and professional families who are vocal about the need to integrate Orleans Parish schools, now more than 90 percent black with a majority of students qualifying for reduced price lunch.

“Potentially, there is an opportunity. If a Jeff-like charter approval emerged and was approved by BESE, we would not have to wait on Hansberry,” Vallas said. He said that while the $1.8 billion lump sum FEMA has given the RSD for school construction has been allocated, officials continue to tweak plans. “If people are uncomfortable with KIPP, we are very open to community charters,” he said.