Former L.B. Landry football coach Derek LaMothe addresses the crowd at a public hearing on the Landry-Walker merger on Wednesday night. Credit: Photo by Jessica Williams

For more than a year, the communities of L.B. Landry High School and O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School have opposed education officials’ plans to merge the two schools. Landry supporters have called it an end to the 75-year-old school; Walker instead wanted its own General Meyer Avenue location to be renovated.

And hundreds of parents, teachers, and alumni of Walker and Martin Behrman Charter School Academy for Creative Arts and Sciences have clamored in the last year to shake the stigma of a failing school system and leave the Recovery School District.

“Even though charter schools on their face have been pushed as a way for parents and the community to really be involved, it’s not real.”— parent advocate Karran Harper Royal

This type of involvement—families, community members and school employees playing an active role in a school’s direction—was one of the selling points of the charter movement back when the first Louisiana charter school law was drafted in the 1990s.

But in these cases, school chiefs have overruled the community’s desires, causing some to question whether the city’s charter schools are as responsive as they were supposed to be.

“Even though charter schools on their face have been pushed as a way for parents and the community to really be involved, it’s not real,” parent advocate Karran Harper Royal said.

Harper Royal regularly attends the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s meetings and has followed the situations at the three schools. Although charter schools and the RSD hold community meetings, she said they don’t really go along with the community’s ideas.

“All they want is for us to co-sign their plans,” she said.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education requires charters to have policies to ensure parental involvement and respond to their complaints. But “just because it’s in the law doesn’t mean it plays out on the ground,” said Joanna Smith, who has researched parent involvement in charters around the country as assistant director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Educational Governance.

The state does not monitor schools to see if they follow through on those policies, Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Barry Landry said, but it “will address and resolve specific, substantiated complaints.”

Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, agreed that school leaders need to solicit parents’ opinions. But she said that community engagement is “going to be defined differently by different people.” She’s against any definition in which a school leader and a governing board is stripped of the final say, she said.

Community input promised

The notion of heightened community participation was prevalent early in Louisiana’s charter school movement in the 1990s. Nearly any group can apply to charter a school, as long as some members are certified teachers.

In a handbook on charter schools published in 1995, former state Sen. Cecil Picard (D-Maurice), who wrote the law and went on to become the state chief of schools, touted increased community involvement as one of the law’s goals.

The law gives charter schools the autonomy to create missions and set curricula that cater to specific communities not served by traditional schools—military-style education or French immersion, for instance.

And of course accountability factored in. Greater student achievement, lawmakers reasoned, would come when educators and others closest to kids were held accountable for student outcomes, said Bill Miller, who spent nearly three years as the first director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s charter school office.

“Yes, it was an opportunity to be able to have greater parent and community engagement and bring people closer to schools,” Miller said. But “it was [also] a way to say OK, if we free people up to use their entrepreneurial spirit, professional creativity … can they create schools where kids can learn to superior levels?”

”That original idea, from people in towns and cities [who] wanted to create something better … some of that is being buffeted by commercialization of the charter school movement.”— Bill Miller, the first director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s charter school office

After lawmakers authorized Louisiana’s first charter schools, many educators and community groups did just that. Anthony Recasner and Jay Altman, directors of James Lewis Extension School, joined with parents to convert Lewis into the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle, in 1998.

In the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina, several more schools followed a similar model. Large organizations such as the University of New Orleans penned charter applications, but so did the husband and wife team of Ron and Alice Midkiff, both educators. They envisioned their own charter school in eastern New Orleans and worked with parents to create Einstein Charter School in 2005.

The post-Katrina charter boom has resulted in more than 40 boards running 73 schools in New Orleans. Of those schools, 41 (about 56 percent) are run by charter management organizations that oversee multiple schools, rather than cadres of motivated parents.

Miller said that wasn’t envisioned when charter schools were written into law.

“There may be people from the community” running those charter organizations, Miller said, “but that original idea, from people in towns and cities [who] wanted to create something better … some of that is being buffeted by commercialization of the charter school movement.”

Shirley said many charter management organizations effectively engage their constituents. “I think to have a broad brush stroke, to say CMOs don’t do it well … that’s not fair,” she said. “I know standalones that don’t do it well.”

School leaders, both of single charters and larger organizations, determine the extent they engage their communities, she said.

Who decides if a school stays open?

Former L.B. Landry football coach Derek LaMothe has complained to RSD and the Algiers Charter School Association, the city’s largest charter management organization, about their plans to merge Walker and Landry. He doesn’t think he’s influenced their plans.

“They are basically just moving forward, saying, ‘Forget the community.’” LaMothe said. He believes the so-called merger is really Landry’s end because Walker’s academic program will be moved into Landry’s facility.

Walker faculty and parents have also protested the move, saying that Walker, not Landry, should have received a new facility from the beginning. Both buildings needed renovations after the storm. But now that the merger seems to be a done deal, Walker leaders are working to expand their program, Walker head faculty member Bob Corvo said.

Most native New Orleanians have strong ties to their high school alma maters, so the battle is not surprising, said Leslie Jacobs, head of Educate Now and former Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member.

Still, there’s not enough construction money available for both Walker and Landry, she said. And with a smaller population after Katrina, “New Orleans has too many high schools,” she said. Landry has the space for all students, and Walker is an academically stronger school.

“The extreme of parent engagement and community engagement is, whatever the community … wants to do, the school does. … That’s pulling all the power away from either the board or the administrators in the school.”— Brian Beabout, founding Morris Jeff Community School board member

This has happened before. Greater Gentilly High School and Thurgood Marshall Early College High School were merged in 2011 because Gentilly’s $39 million facility was underenrolled and it had room for Marshall’s students. Despite opposition from Gentilly parents and students, the merger moved forward.

Algiers Charter School Association board members have described the situation as out of their control; they are operating at the state’s instruction, board president Collin Brooks said at a December meeting. (CEO Adrian Morgan declined comment for this story.)

Brian Beabout, a University of New Orleans education professor and a founding Morris Jeff Community School board member, said the merger is a matter of balancing the community and the system’s needs.

“The extreme of parent engagement and community engagement is, whatever the community … wants to do, the school does,” he said. “That’s pulling all the power away from either the board or the administrators in the school.” Instead, school leaders should negotiate with their constituents and talk about what’s possible, he said.

School officials and the community have had extensive conversations on the issue. Superintendent Patrick Dobard has talked with members of both school communities, RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed said. The Algiers Charter School Association, which will run the program next year, has had its own round of public meetings.

Wednesday night, state and Orleans school board members faced more than 100 people at a town hall meeting at the Martin Behrman gym. Kira Orange Jones, who represents New Orleans on the state board, said the size of the crowd surprised her.

“I’ve asked questions about this so far, and I’ve been told there is a very small group of people with concerns,” she said. “I can testify that from looking at this room, that is simply not true.”

BESE member Lottie Beebe, of Breaux Bridge, said that all she and the other state board members could do is relay what they heard to the full board. “We can’t do anything unless it’s collectively,” she said.

LaMothe is still fighting; his group filed a lawsuit against RSD in August. Several speakers stressed Wednesday night that the discussions were not over, despite RSD’s announcement in December.

To whom does a school answer?

The Behrman community has also felt disenfranchised in the last year. Representatives from a community group presented a petition with more than 500 signatures to BESE in January 2012, calling for Orleans Parish School Board oversight of the elementary and middle school in Algiers.

The community wanted to escape the stigma associated with the largely low-performing Recovery School District: “We are not a failing school, nor do we want to be considered as a failing school,” Behrman volunteer Larry Hammond told state board members at their January meeting. “We want out.”

School leaders had done what state law required to enable them to return to the parish school board. Test scores had remained high throughout the school’s five-year charter.

But because state policies leave it up to the charter operator—the Algiers Charter School Association—to decide whether high-performing schools can switch to another charter authority, the school stayed put. The School Board had not outlined the logistics of a return, former CEO Andrea Thomas Reynolds said.

A year later, a group of Walker faculty started to push to return their school to the parish school board. The Orleans school board, BESE and RSD had outlined the return process. But again, the Algiers charter board denied a switch; board members said the schools could lose independence and money.

Charters authorized by RSD receive federal funds directly, but some of that money would flow to the Orleans school board if they returned to its oversight. None of other  12 schools eligible this year chose to make the leap; many cited this reason.

In December, Behrman assistant principal Brian Young called the charter group’s refusal to let Behrman return “almost a hostage situation.”

If the schools keep up their high performance—they need a School Performance Score of at least 54 on a 150-point scale to switch—they’ll be eligible to try again. But again, it will be up to the board, not the school’s community.

Neither the Behrman nor Walker communities got what they wanted, but Beabout said that doesn’t mean educators didn’t listen.

Behrman and Walker’s return to OPSB is symbolic, he said, of a system-wide return to home rule. “People want that, and people’s emotions become involved in that,” he said. But officials have to consider the schools’ financial well-being.

Lycée Français: the outlier

Another well-publicized conflict between a school community and a charter board is turning out differently. Parents at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orleans—a single charter run by an independent board—complained to BESE about leadership issues and the school’s lack of diversity, among other problems.

State Superintendent John White’s office began looking into the complaints and working with the school to resolve them. At his behest, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools hired a private consultant, EMH Strategy, to help find a CEO and address questions about board oversight.

Robert Rachal, the attorney representing a group of 40 parents, said he’s pleased with the consultant’s recommendation, which incorporated their concerns. He credited “a lot of hard work, and persistent parents that just weren’t going to go away.”

In this case, parents’ complaints have been largely confirmed by the consultant and state education officials. White has said that leadership changes would bring the school back on course.

Shirley told The Lens in January that the school is solid academically and is improving financially. But “what I’ve seen is a board that is taking on some roles and responsibilities that traditionally are not part of what a board should be doing,” she said.

In addition to its independent board, Lycée falls directly under the state education board’s governance—unlike other charters authorized by their local school board or RSD, as White noted last week when he met with teachers. “My sense is we have stumbled,” he said.

And given BESE’s investment in charters, it’s no surprise it would intervene to help a new, struggling charter of its own, Beabout said.

Harper Royal, however, believes Lycée’s parents got the help they wanted for a different reason. “Those are people who are already connected,” she said, referring to the school’s white, middle-class parent majority.
“The state’s going out of its way to make sure that school survives. And that school has all kinds of issues.”

In general, she said local education leaders still have a long way to go in terms of community engagement: “I wish it was different,” she said. “I know quite a few people in the city who have some really good ideas about what kids need.”

Officials might like those ideas, she said, if they’d only listen.

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...