Last hurrah: Ben Mays Prep kids parade during Carnival. Credit: Jessica Williams

When Michelle Cheatham moved back to New Orleans from Georgia three years ago, her biggest concern was finding help for her daughter, Kyla, then 13. Doctors said the girl needed a kidney transplant.

Adding to Cheatham’s stress was the challenge of finding schools for all three of her daughters. Kyla was set to go to Warren Easton – long heralded as a good high school – but what about Janessa, then 4, and Miranda, 8? Cheatham knew she wanted to place them in a school near the 9th Ward housing complex where they were living, and she needed to trust the faculty to look out for them while she looked out for Kyla.

Benjamin Mays Preparatory School on Higgins Boulevard, just a five-minute drive from home, met both requirements, she said.

“I didn’t have to worry about the other two, because I knew they were in a safe place,” she said. “I knew they were going to be taken care of, and if there was a problem, they were going to let me know what’s going on.”

But before August, she’ll have to put her confidence in a new group of educators, because Mays is closing its doors at the end of this school year.

Mays is one of four charters in transition this year. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in December to strip the school of its charter because of low academic performance. Three other charters, Pride College Prep, Crocker Arts and Technology School and Intercultural Charter School, also were not renewed. But other operators agreed to run those schools, giving enrolled students priority. Though another school will be at the Mays site next year — Akili Academy — Akili is moving from its former location, not expanding, and it will enroll its own students first. That means Mays’ students will be dispersed to schools across the city.

The Mays community doesn’t dispute the school’s poor scores, but they believe test scores are just one part of the formula that makes for a good school. They cite the school’s familial atmosphere as one of its greatest strengths, and they wonder what impact the school’s closure will have on kids who have grown to love Mays’ faculty.

Assault on poor performance

School closures and transfers have become an integral part of the overhaul of public education in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. The free-market principles the system is founded on mandate that low-performing schools be shuttered after an initial three- or five-year period. Mays, with a 2012 school performance score of 53.3 – an F by state standards – just didn’t make the grade.

Charter schools have not been the only ones caught up in the shift. The Recovery School District’s traditional schools are also being put through administrative changes, as the district fulfills its ambition to hand off its entire portfolio to charter operators. Boosting student achievement is one goal; another is to reduce the number of schools in an attempt to “right-size the system.” Three of the district’s traditional schools – James W. Johnson Elementary, Abramson Elementary, and Murray Henderson Elementary – will be closed along with Mays next year.

Critics, such as education advocate Ashana Bigard, argue that shuttering schools for any reason uproots families and can be traumatic.

“The whole model of closing and replacing a school is the opposite of stability,” which is key to a child’s success, Bigard said.

But others, such as Kira Orange Jones, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who strongly supports charters and school choice, said that while “the last thing you want to do is upheave students’ normal routines,” that doesn’t outweigh BESE’s responsibility to the public.

“It’s very important to us to make sure that we are holding charters accountable for what they say they will do, even if it’s unpopular,” she said. Charters are granted autonomy, but with that autonomy comes increased responsibility, Jones said.

Jones voted with a BESE majority to shutter Mays at the end of the year. She said the decision was particularly difficult because she knows how much the school’s faculty cares about its students.

Family feeling fades

Mays principal Shanda Gentry sees the school’s closure as unavoidably disruptive for its enrollment of about 360 students, many of them low-income residents of the nearby Desire neighborhood.

RSD officials appreciate the problem and are giving Mays families a hand. After Akili and other elementary schools participating in the city’s common application process enroll their returning students, those from Mays will have first priority, Deputy Superintendent of External Affairs Dana Peterson said.

RSD officials, as well as representatives from Akili and other nearby schools, were on hand to answer questions at a Feb. 5 school fair catering to Mays families, but the event was sparsely attended. Kids who don’t make the cut at Akili will face sometimes lengthy commuting times — and in some cases, so will their parents, those who have cars.

Though most charters provide transportation for students, about a dozen of them that answer to the Orleans Parish School Board are exempt from this requirement.

Community resident Bridgette McCoy has two kids and three grandchldren at Mays.
Community resident Bridgette McCoy has two kids and three grandchldren at Mays.

Bridgette McCoy, who has two of her 11 children at Mays and no car, said the school’s proximity  makes it easy for her to walk or get a ride if one of her kids has a problem.

McCoy, 50, also has three grandchildren at Mays and values the school’s role in having helped keep her family close-knit. She jokes that she also likes Mays because the teachers treat “the lady with all the children” as their family — someone they don’t hesitate to call when the kids or grandkids misbehave.

To her, the sense of community trumps the school’s failing performance score. She wonders if recent administrative changes — Gentry has been on the job just two years — have had time to work.

“I know they’re having difficulty, but .. well they just changed principals,” she said.

When she learned that the school was closing, not just switching leadership, she balked. “So what they’re saying, it’s on the teachers? The teachers not helping the kids?” She shook her head. “This is really sad.”

Teacher’s ‘heart is broken’

Jasmine Graves, who has been a middle-school teacher at Mays since its 2009 inception, said others share McCoy’s and Cheatham’s disappointment.

“Our population … we’re just as bonded to them as they are to us,” she said. Parents sometimes even ask teachers for help with a utility bill. “ ‘My lights are off. Can you help me? My water’s off,’ ” she said.

When BESE voted to close the school, Graves and the rest of the faculty were in shock. “My heart was broken, and it’s still broken,” she said. “I’m not even dealing with this for real, to be honest.”

Graves is considering a career change now that the school is closing, and hopes to put her Loyola University law degree to use.

To Gentry’s knowledge, most teachers haven’t started looking for jobs. She has contacted the nonprofit charter-school incubator, New Schools for New Orleans, to arrange a teacher job fair.

Gentry said she doesn’t know where she’s going to work next year. RSD’s recommendation to close the school caught her off guard, she said, because she thought officials would  take Mays’ acceptance of struggling students from the now-shuttered Carver Elementary school into account. Adding those kids to the roster in 2011 brought down the school’s overall score, she said.

But taking on new students, regardless of their academic ability, is a reality that all open-enrollment charters face each year, Peterson said.

“You don’t get a pass in the accountability system,” he added.

Cheatham is going to keep track of where Mays’ faculty wind up.

“I thought maybe I can send them wherever their teacher is going,” she said. But, even if the girls do follow their teachers, the environment at new schools will be different, she said. For now, she’s applying to Akili for the two girls, because it’s so close. She’s hoping it will be something like Mays.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...