In 2013, then State Superintendent John White visited the embattled school to ask French national teachers to stick with Lycee Francais. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

As children filed out of Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans charter school Wednesday afternoon to cars and waiting parents, Louisiana’s top education official strolled in alone.

State superintendent John White offered friendly “bonjours” to any who greeted him. But his mission at the embattled French curriculum school was clear. He wanted to hear directly from faculty about their day-to-day experiences inside the 340-student school — and, most importantly, to exhort them to stay for 2013-14.

“My sense is we have stumbled,” White said, standing before a classroom of about 30 staff members seated in kid-sized chairs. “We need your help.”

Two weeks ago, the head of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana sent a letter to the school’s interim chief warning her that only four of the school’s 18 French teachers were willing to stay at Lycée amid recent leadership turmoil. Unless the school retains more instructors, CODOFIL’s head said, the organization could not promise future help placing French nationals at the school.

“I’m asking you to consider sticking with us for next year.” — John White

White promised the teachers on Wednesday that change is coming. A new chief executive will be in place by May, he said. The face of Lycée’s governing board will also change, he said.

“I’m asking you to consider sticking with us for next year,” he said.

Then, White then asked to hear from school staff.

Julie Benachour, a prekindergarten teacher who teaches 3-year-olds, said there have been times when one teacher oversaw as many as 40 students alone.

Another teacher said the school doesn’t have adequate lockdown procedures. When the school had its first lockdown a few days ago, she said, teachers were ill-prepared.

White asked if the lockdown miscommunication was reflective of bigger communication issues at the school. Many nodded their heads.

“We used to be enthusiastic.” — Julie Benachour, teacher

Another teacher gave an emotional account of a day last fall when four Lycée employees were fired. She said she had yet to re-establish trust with administration and the board. “We all walked around on eggshells for quite some time wondering who was next,” she said.

“We used to be enthusiastic,” Benachour said.

Benachour, who said she was speaking on behalf of a group of teachers, said there are now five teachers are willing to return to Lycée in the fall. The others, she said, would need reassurance that changes would take place before they could commit to another year.

“We do need to make changes,” White said. But he cautioned that change takes time.

CODOFIL Executive Director Joseph Dunn has given acting CEO Gisele Schexnider a March 15 deadline to obtain commitments from the French faculty that they intend to stay, even though the school’s board is not expected to make a CEO hire until May. Dunn said he would consider 10 commitments a “good-faith” effort by Lycee.

While White’s intervention at the school is unusual, he first extended his assistance to the school in December, following the November resignation of its former CEO, Jean-Jacques Grandiere — the second school chief to resign from Lycée in a matter of months.

White asked the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools to reach out to the school. The organization secured management consultant Jeremy Hunnewell of EMH Strategies to review the school’s organization before recommending changes in both board and school leadership.

Others in attendance at the staff meeting included Dunn, Hunnewell, New Orleans’ French Consul General Jean-Claude Brunet, Lycée board member Catherine MacPhaille, school development consultant Mary Carstens and the charter school’s attorney, Lee Reid.

But there were some notable absences.

One teacher asked White why board chairman Jean Montes and board member Paige Saleun were not in attendance.

“I asked them not to be here,” White said.

Montes and Saleun are named in a lawsuit by a former Lycée teacher. And in January a group of parents called for the pair to step down from the board.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, White doled out instructions for what he thinks should happen next.

“The biggest takeaway today is that everyone in the Lycée community must work together to ensure that our school accomplishes its mission.” — Catherine MacPhaille, Lycée board member

MacPhaille said.He asked MacPhaille to set a date to sit down with Schexnider and staff to review a list of things employees believe can improve the school environment. He asked CODOFIL to work with the school and state to plan for the coming year. And he asked all teachers and stakeholders to work with one another respectfully.

After the meeting, several said they were encouraged.

“The biggest takeaway today is that everyone in the Lycée community must work together to ensure that our school accomplishes its mission,” MacPhaille said.

She said the board was thankful for White’s help and appreciative of the staff members who came.

“We hope John White will make sure the changes happen for the best of the children and families,” Benachour told The Lens.

As White walked out of the school’s Patton Street campus, he said he thought the conversation went well.

Asked why someone charged with leading all of the state’s public schools would take such an interest in this small, two-year-old elementary, White pointed out that Lycée is one of the few charter schools that the state directly oversees.

“We have had an absence of leadership and that is entirely solvable,” he said of Lycée.

“I know the school is going to succeed,” he said. “It’s really important that we get this right.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...