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Future Is Now board discusses handover of Cohen High over to Recovery School District

The governing board that oversees John McDonogh High School has decided to cut ties with Walter L. Cohen High School after less than a year of being its “custodian,” board members said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The Recovery School District will take Cohen over during the 2013-14 school year, officials announced Tuesday. It was not immediately clear what would happen to the 17 staff members currently employed at the school.

“From this point forward, everything relating to Cohen is an RSD question,” said John McDonogh principal Marvin Thompson in response to community members’ questions about what would happen as Cohen students saw yet another transition before they graduate.

The Recovery School District directly ran the school in 2012 until Future Is Now: New Orleans began serving as an administrator in October, according to documents from prior meetings.

“Our intent up until the last minute was to maintain and run that school,” Thompson said.

Community members invested in Cohen expressed disappointment with the decision at the meeting.

“The students will be let down again; that can’t be helped. But what will you put into place for them?” asked Ashana Bigard, 38, who said she has been working with Cohen students and described herself as “an advocate just trying to help out.”

Future Is Now: New Orleans board member Judith Dangerfield said that the transition was in the best interests of the students at John McDonogh.

“We were able to manage it [Cohen] extremely well and effectively,” Dangerfield said. “But the diversion of resources and attention being pulled away from students here at John McDonogh was challenging.”

Cohen High has one more class – next year’s senior class. The RSD was initially in charge of phasing out the school in the 2012-13 school year, operating only its grades 11 and 12, as the charter organization New Orleans College Prep took over, according to New Orleans College Prep’s website.

“It doesn’t really change a lot for us,” Ben Kleban, the CEO of New Orleans College Prep, told The Lens. “It’s the RSD’s decision. We’ve worked with both organizations.”

Cohen was to gradually transition so that New Orleans College Prep would operate the entire building of sixth- through 12th-grade programs, renamed Cohen College Prep Middle School and Cohen College Prep High School.

In October of 2012, Future Is Now: New Orleans took charge of the 109-student school from the RSD as “a favor,” said Chris Lozier, the national organization’s chief operating officer.

But the two-grade school proved to be too taxing on the charter management organization’s budget.

As of April 30, Cohen projected a deficit of $288,000 for October to June.

Documents show that the school ran a $216,000 deficit in three months under the Recovery School District.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Dangerfield suggested there was a lesson to be learned about how the Future Is Now: New Orleans board was being run when Cohen was taken over.

“It was not a board decision to take over Cohen,” Dangerfield said, in response to another parent’s question about how the school came to be managed by the organization in the first place.

“The board did not have to take an action because the authority been already been given to the charter management operation to make those decisions,” she said.

Dangerfield explained that the national company, Future Is Now, had the authority to enter into contractual agreements at that time – a point that she wants to avoid in the future by introducing a governance committee to the board.

“If you look at the way the relationship was developed, Future Is Now had the authority to enter into that agreement,” Dangerfield said. “Which is one of the reasons we’re entering into a governance committee, so that the board will have to take action.”

On Tuesday, Future Is Now: New Orleans voted to establish a new governance committee.

Some of the goals of the new committee are to establish board policies and procedures, evaluate the board’s effectiveness and recruit new members, Dangerfield said.

“We want to be a good and high-functioning board, and this is a start on how to establish this.”

In other John McDonogh developments:

  • John McDonogh’s contract with its current security team, Statewide Security, ended for the 2012-13 school year, and the school will use S.E.A.L. Group (Security Experts and Leaders) on a trial basis during summer school. Some of the changes anticipated include an emphasis on creating a “friendly” environment, with only a lead security officer armed and his weapon not visible, according to Stanley Barre, the new dean of discipline at John McDonogh. Information given out at the meeting reads: “Security will be responsible for positive interactions with the student, staff and the community.”

  • A summer school status reports shows that 174 of 377 students at John McDonogh need some form of summer instruction. Of those, a total of 115 students are attending classes. Thompson also said that several students from other schools would also be attending the summer classes in exchange for $150 per student in registration fees. John McDonogh students pay $25, according to Thompson.

  • Several students received iPads that had been promised to them all year, just a few days before the end of the school year, Thompson said. The school couldn’t afford to give one to every student, Thompson added, so he asked his staff to come up with criteria. The criteria ended up being a 3.0 or higher GPA, no more than 10 absences and no more than 10 office referrals. John McDonogh Advisory Committee Chair Clarence Robinson only had one objection: “I wish the advisory board had been part of the process to figure out who got them. That’s the role we want to play.”

The meeting started shortly after 6 p.m. and lasted approximately an hour and a half. In addition to Dangerfield and Robinson, board members Vaughn Fauria, Charles Fenet and John Hope were also in attendance.

Steve Barr was not in attendance, nor was Chris Lozier, the chief operating officer of Future is Now.

John McDonogh staff members Thompson and Barre were present, along with other educators.

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