In 10 years, do we want to open schools outside of Orleans Parish? Do we want to be a national organization? Or, do we want to simply focus on the schools we have?

Those were just some of the questions that the board members who govern the three-school  Crescent City Schools charter network asked themselves during a six-hour retreat Saturday. In addition to discussing the organization’s long-term goals and celebrating some successes, they also discussed a new partnership with the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

The expansion talk shows that board members are keeping up with the city’s changing education landscape. On Wednesday, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the expansion of four local charter groups to Baton Rouge and other areas. As academic performance improves across the city, and the Recovery School District’s number of directly run schools continues to shrink, there are few local options for nonprofits interested in turnaround.

The 10 board members present Saturday had different ideas about the organization’s future, although the conversation was cordial. Some of the board members’ suggestions seemed to be at odds with what chief executive officer Kate Mehok has envisioned for the relatively young charter group.

Board president JP Hymel made his opinion clear soon after the conversation began: “If I look at ourselves in 10 years I would expect that we might have New Orleans schools and neighboring parishes,” he said. In 20 years, he’d expect the organization to move beyond Louisiana.

Board member Carolyn Chandler wasn’t as interested in rapid growth, saying she wanted Crescent City to “commit to… excellence and quality over expansion.”

Board members Julius Kimbrough and Bob Stefani agreed. Kimbrough made the point that in the future, they may acquire schools the same way Akili Academy, once a standalone charter, came on board.

“That should be our strategy, to merge some of those charters into CCS,” he said.

Stefani suggested matching Crescent City’s kindergarten through eighth graders with existing high schools that Mehok and staff identify as successful. Board member John Hummel said the charter network should open a high school directly.

Mehok listened to each member’s suggestion before offering her advice: To open a high school, the organization will first have to find a building, and then a school leader “who lives and breathes high school.” A problem with large management groups is that they tend to favor standardization – when clusters of schools do most things the same way –  over individual autonomy. And Crescent City was founded on the idea that principals make the decisions, she said.

In the end, what the board may want isn’t necessarily in line with what she wants.

“I’m interested in having a board aligned around the vision, and I know we’re not aligned, which is fine,” she said.

The board made no decisions on a long-term vision that Saturday, but Hymel promised to take back the discussion to the board’s strategic planning committee and “see what’s actually possible.”

New partnership, other news

Crescent City is partnering with the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music to offer music lessons to about a hundred Akili students three days a week during the school day. The Center is about two blocks from Akili’s new location on North Galvez Street in the Upper 9th Ward. The center’s director, Michele Jean Pierre, explained its programs and outlined the partnership for the board.

Echoing a safety concern from Akili parent Bernell Patterson, Hymel asked Jean Pierre how Crescent City and the center can continue to work together to help bring the surrounding community back and ensure Akili students’ safety.

Jean Pierre said she’s already been working to improve the area, through petitioning the city to fill in potholes around the center and installing security cameras outside of the center. She stressed  that “making friends with the neighborhood” can go a long way. “I think the biggest concern (is), ‘These new folks are coming and they are trying to take over our neighborhood,’” she said.

The board also cheered the news that Harriet Tubman Charter School, the first failing school Crescent City took over in 2011, will no longer be failing when school performance scores are released this October. Preliminary data indicates that the school had enough growth this year to pull them into a “high D” range, Mehok said.

The school had a “T” letter grade last year, a grade the state gives to failing schools that have been recently taken over by new operators. Its 2011 score, based off of work done under its former operator, the Algiers Charter School Association, was a 55.4. The first year it operated under Crescent City, it received a 66.6.

The board’s August meeting will be on Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 6 p.m. at Paul Habans Charter School.

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...