Sagging grades likely to shutter Sojourner Truth Academy

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Sojourner Truth Academy officials said Tuesday night that they’re preparing to dissolve the four-year-old charter school, even before state educators next week reveal recommendations on whether it and other charters deserve extensions.

The Uptown charter, on Napoleon Avenue at Freret Street, has 247 students who have consistently underperformed on state standardized tests, earning the school an F- on the most recent state report card. Administrators have told staff and parents that the school will close in May.

“We are measured by certain accountability standards, and we didn’t meet those,” school board President Robert Burvant told The Lens in an interview before the meeting. “That is the bottom line.”

The decision to surrender its charter to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at the end of the year was finalized at the charter’s Tuesday night board meeting.

School officials said the decision comes after Recovery School District officials warned the school that RSD and state officials would not advise the state board to extend Truth’s charter. Like all relatively new charters, the school must pass a review after three years in order to continue operating for the full five years of its initial term.

The RSD and the state Education Department’s Office of Parental Options will present a list of schools to Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at the state school board’s committee meeting next week, and the state board must vote on the schools’ fates by Jan. 31.

It’s unlikely that BESE will vote in Truth’s favor, given its academic history. State charter-school law requires schools to make clear improvements in student performance each school year. Sojourner Truth’s school performance score has actually declined since its inception in the 2008-2009 year. The school’s score now stands at 49 on a scale of 200; the state’s passing grade this year is 65.

Burvant said an RSD representative advised the Sojourner Truth board earlier this month that the school wouldn’t be recommended.

“And what they also said is because our scores actually declined from year two to year three, they could not make an exception for us because we didn’t show improvement, and that’s what they look for,” he said.

Calls to the RSD to determine whether or not RSD officials did indeed warn the school of an impending exclusion from the recommendation list didn’t yield much. An RSD spokeswoman simply said that all executive recommendations would be made public at the BESE meeting next week.

But at the Tuesday night meeting, Burvant presented a memorandum of understanding between the RSD and Truth. It outlines the district’s commitment to get Truth students into higher-performing schools for next year and to help Truth faculty find employment with other charter operators, provided that Truth gives up its charter at the end of the school year.

The Sojourner Truth community has had mixed reactions to the school’s fate. One faculty member, Marika Barto, said that if state officials do give the school a negative recommendation next week, she feels the board hasn’t done enough to fight it and that a shutdown announcement is premature.

“It seems as though our board of directors threw in the towel and gave up on our students and staff,” Barto wrote in an email to The Lens.

Mandy Myers, who volunteers at the school, addressed the board and expressed a similar sentiment. Myers said that the board should be ashamed if it did nothing to fight for the students at Truth outside of voluntarily relinquishing the charter.

Burvant said the board had weighed all possibilities, but that the school’s poor academic performance didn’t leave them with many options. Board member Charline Gipson said at the meeting that the board “has nothing to be ashamed of.”

“To have it be said in this public forum that this board ought to be ashamed and that they don’t care, is patently false, and I am personally offended by it,” Gipson said in response to Myers. “We have done our absolute best for these students…the reason that we have volunteered countless hours over the last several years is because we do care.”

Barto also said to The Lens in an earlier interview that the school could have challenged BESE and asked for a revocation hearing. A charter school recommended for revocation, or termination of its charter before the full five year period is up, can do just that – charter school law gives schools the right to plead cases before BESE makes the final decision.

Two other charters have been snatched in the past year. The Algiers Charter School Association’s contract for Harriet Tubman Charter School was terminated in January, also because of low student performance. That school continues to operate, however, under a different management board, Crescent City Schools.

The Pelican Foundation’s contract for Abramson Science and Technology School was taken this summer, although that revocation occurred because the board felt that the health, safety, and welfare of students was at issue, rather than academic performance.

While the Algiers association chose to voluntarily relinquish the charter, the Abramson community turned out overwhelmingly to the board meeting in which BESE decided its fate. Barto said that a similar turnout for Truth is needed.

An audience of about 60 parents, students, and advocates turned out at Tuesday night’s board meeting, but largely for reasons unrelated to the school’s shutdown. Tens students were suspended in early November for singing in the school cafeteria at lunchtime, and eight of them complained to the board and asked for an appeal.

One parent, Genevieve Spencer Moore, said the board didn’t do enough to make parents aware of the shutdown.

“Why are we just now finding out that the school is closing down? I never knew that the school was closing, and I have two kids that go here, a 12th grader and an 11th grader,” she told the board.

Board members responded that a memo was sent home to parents, and that meetings were scheduled to discuss the shutdown. Moore said she never received the memo.

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