Historic switch today to School Board highlights changes in New Orleans schools

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It’s a historic day for the Orleans Parish School Board as the first charter school returns to the locally elected board from the state-run recovery district, which seized control of more than 100 city schools nearly 10 years ago.

Today’s change likely will go unnoticed by most students, teachers and parents of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School, but it’s a move that’s being heralded as a milestone by the superintendent, board and proponents of shrinking the state’s presence in the city’s schools.

The School Board today also gains oversight of three other charters: two new campuses, and one that was in jeopardy of being shut down, which now joins an existing charter network under the board’s supervision. These moves and the dissolution of two other schools reduces the Recovery School District’s lineup of charters in New Orleans by four.

King’s voluntary move sets it apart, and local officials hope it’s a symbol for the city that lost control of the vast majority of its schools just months after the facilities were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods.

“To have our first school return back home is great for our city,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Monday.

The K-12 school in the Lower 9th Ward has earned a B in the state’s report card accountability system.

In an education framework that touts choice, King’s leadership chose a different oversight agency.

Each of the 76 charter schools in New Orleans is run by a charter board. These boards enjoy sweeping freedom to set policy and curriculum for the schools, but they still must be overseen by an authorizing agency. As of today, the Orleans Parish School board supervises 18 charters. The Recovery School District oversees 53, and five others are overseen directly by the state school board.

A change in mission

The Recovery School District initially was set up to temporarily take over failing schools, bring their scores up, and return them to their home districts.  A 2010 state policy change eliminated the automatic-return process and gave the charter boards the option to return or stay.

This year, 36 RSD charters maintained passing scores high enough to be eligible to return to School Board oversight.

As charter school boards across the city publicly discussed and voted on the decision this winter, leading up to a Jan. 5 deadline, many cited the lack of a permanent superintendent in their decision to stay with the RSD.

Friends of King school board, which oversees King charter initially cited similar concerns, but eventually decided to transfer King anyway. The group also oversees Joseph A. Craig Charter School, which will remain in the recovery district.

The School Board may have eased some trepidation when they hired Lewis in March. The new superintendent has been very public with his intentions to cater to charter schools and to convert traditional schools into a “portfolio district,” giving campus leaders charter-like control and shrinking the central office.

The RSD and School Board have several cooperative endeavor agreements and their enrollment and disciplinary systems are intertwined, though both are run by the RSD. Lewis wants that to change.

“We are working together, but long term, those functions have to return back to OPSB,” he said.

Lewis said his changes to the central office are designed to better accommodate the School Board’s growing roll of charters.

Board gains three other schools

In the Broadmoor neighborhood, Andrew H. Wilson Charter School is also transitioning back to local control. But it wasn’t exactly the charter school board’s choice.

The F-rated RSD school was not granted a charter extension due to its poor academic performance. Instead, its leaders agreed to be taken over by a new operator. Several nonprofits applied to run the school, and the RSD selected the School Board-authorized InspireNOLA network.

The district currently oversees 14 charter schools, Wilson and King will make 16 and two new schools set to open this fall, Cypress Academy and Foundation Prep, will make 18.

July 1 is an important date for schools and faculty across the city because many schools’ yearly contracts begin today, others ended Tuesday and many employment contracts run on the same timetable.

Yesterday also marked the end of two RSD charter schools.

Tuesday was the last day of Lagniappe Academies’ charter agreement with the state. The school rode out the final four months of its charter after the state board voted not to give it another amid special-education concerns. Miller McCoy Academy, a business- and math-focused junior high and high school also closed. The F-rated charter school’s board decided to turn in its charter after a warning from the RSD superintendent and amid concerns of an unsafe school environment that were brought before the state board in the fall.

One other school switched its day-to-day management but is staying within the Recovery School District. McDonogh City Park Academy, a D-rated elementary school, agreed to be  taken over by the ReNEW network starting today. Its board of directors believed their 449 students would have better access to opportunities in a bigger network of schools. ReNEW plans to add two sections of pre-kindergarten to the school.

Lewis said schools should be overseen by the governing body Orleans Parish residents have elected — the School Board.

“It’s good for us to have our first school back, but of course, I’m looking forward to it being the first of many schools to return back.”

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