New charter schools face daunting task of attracting enough students to stay afloat

The page for Foundation Preparatory Charter School in a parents guide doesn't offer any information to draw parents. Because it's a new school, there's no data on past performance.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Compared to established schools, the page for Foundation Preparatory Charter School in a parents guide offers little information to draw parents. Because it\’s a new school, there\’s no data on past performance.

The head of one of New Orleans’ newest charter schools spent the last year taking care of nearly everything needed for the first day of school Tuesday — leasing buildings, drawing up a budget and hiring teachers.

But one thing remained uncertain as Tuesday approached: how many seats would be full.

Foundation Preparatory Charter School planned to open with a kindergarten class of 108. At a minimum, it needed 40 students, Myrialis King, founder of the school in in eastern New Orleans, said in July. Ideally, 75.

The day before school started, there were just 15.

So the school suddenly changed plans. Tuesday, as kindergartners were getting acquainted with their new school, the Orleans Parish School Board announced that Foundation Prep would add first grade. It will start next week.

New Orleans’ nearly all-charter school system is built on competition, and for new schools, that means competing with established schools for students.

It’s a daunting task for leaders of new schools. They don’t have a school letter grade or test scores to boast of. They must build relationships in the community and convince parents to take a chance on an unproven school.

“It has been hard,” King said about the recruiting process. “It’s hard for new schools. It’s hard for kindergarten.”

A lot rides on enrollment figures. Considering that state money brought in by six students can pay a teacher’s salary, falling short could mean a newly hired teacher must look for another job.

A unified school district or large charter organization, on the other hand, is better equipped to absorb the financial impact of an enrollment shortfall.

Attracting students is just the first step. At all but a handful of charter schools, interested parents can’t simply sign their kids up. Instead, they’re instructed to choose the school on OneApp, the centralized application system for nearly all schools in the city.

If new schools have trouble filling seats, they may be encouraged to change plans.

Cypress Academy also opened Tuesday. It planned to open with four kindergarten classes. When it couldn’t fill them, school leader Bob Berk replaced two with first-grade classes, which had more demand.

“We said, ‘Sure, we’ll take first grade,” he said.

Building a name

A study released earlier this year found that most charter leaders in New Orleans compete for students by marketing their schools: attending school fairs, hiring marketing consultants and buying ads.

Foundation and Cypress have followed suit.

Foundation has recruited students by “knocking on doors, passing out flyers, having information sessions at pre-K and Head Start programs,” King said. Berk has made the rounds at daycares and Head Start early-childhood programs.

Foundation has advertised in Spanish-language and Vietnamese publications and on Facebook. Cypress has advertised in various publications and websites. Both have advertised at bus shelters.

On paper, these schools are blank slates.

The New Orleans Parents’ Guide is an inch-thick guide to navigating schools in the city. It lists locations, teacher-student ratios, amenities such as after-school care, state-assigned rankings and standardized test performance.

On the pages for Foundation Prep and Cypress Academy, almost everything is blank. In large letters over empty charts, it says,“PAST PERFORMANCE DATA NOT AVAILABLE FOR THIS SCHOOL.”

Standing out from the crowd

Foundation and Cypress emphasize reading skills. That sort of specialization — by curriculum, teaching methods or neighborhood — is another common tactic New Orleans charters use to stand out, according to the Education Research Alliance study.

King said it was by teaching fifth-grade English that she came to believe that “the opportunity gap, or achievement gap as some folks call it, is really a literacy gap.”

She decided to put the school in eastern New Orleans because “we didn’t want to come into a place that was already saturated with schools. … And New Orleans East, when we applied [for a charter], had two students for every one seat available.”

This part of the city is far from the historic neighborhoods typically associated with New Orleans. Originally developed in the 1960’s, it’s made up of subdivisions squeezed between Lake Pontchartrain and marshes.

“Everything that we’ve done has come back to the community,” King said.

Foundation’s location was one reason Joshua Tran decided to enroll his son Joshua Jr. there. He lives nearby, knows a few of the employees and has talked with King several times.

“They are really connected to the community and it’s a safe place for my kid to go,” he said. “We trust them.”

Tyshanisha Henry enrolled her son Ty’shawn in Foundation’s kindergarten after meeting King at a school fair. She was drawn to the school because she wants Ty’shawn to learn a second language, and Foundation plans to offer Spanish and Vietnamese.

“It’s a new start for him [Ty’shawn] and a new start for them also,” Henry said. “So that was fine with me.”

Cypress’ focus arose from Berk’s experience as a school administrator. Some of the private schools he worked at weren’t well equipped to handle students with special-education needs. So he decided to start a school that was.

Cypress Academy, which employs a hands-on approach in the classroom, reserves 20 percent of its seats for students at risk for a reading disability. No other school in New Orleans does that, he said.

“We have a speech pathologist on staff because we think it’s so important that she works with our teachers, and that kids get more than 45 minutes a week or twice a week,” he said. “Our goal is to catch anybody who is at risk and bring them into the program.”

Grassroots recruiting in a centralized system

When Bricolage Academy was recruiting students for its first year in 2013, founder Josh Densen took applications at playgrounds, festivals and open houses. Everyone was entered into the school’s lottery that spring.

Now, new charters can’t close the deal in person. They have to use OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system.

Parents rank up to eight schools and the Recovery School District’s computer system tries to match students with their preferences. It’s easier for parents to apply to multiple schools, particularly those who can’t who take time off work or don’t have a car to drop off applications around the city.

But on OneApp, new schools are listed among dozens of public schools in the city. OneApp lists details like school performance for most schools; there’s less information on new ones. It may not even say where a school is located if it hasn’t secured a lease by the time OneApp starts in the fall.

“I do think that the immediacy of submitting an application at the point of contact is helpful for schools to accumulate applicants,” Densen said.

However, he believes Bricolage would have been full its first year even if had it used OneApp from the start. “I just don’t know where they would have ranked Bricolage,” he said.

The school did participate in the second round of OneApp, which occurred after Bricolage’s lottery. Matched students were placed on the waitlist. And it uses OneApp now.

Although OneApp adds another step to the application process, Berk doesn’t think it’s an obstacle. It’s meant to ensure equal access to schools, he said, and when he explains that to parents, “they totally understand,” he said.

“I think the value of it outweighs any struggle it presents,” he said.

Late push for students

During the summer, enrollment for most of the city’s schools takes place in person, on a first-come, first-served basis.

As of Wednesday, according to a OneApp report, 17 schools had more than 10 kindergarten seats available. Another 16 schools had between one and nine. That means there were at least 186 open kindergarten seats in the city.

In both kindergarten and first grade, Cypress had less than 10 seats; Foundation had more than 10.

As of Monday night, Foundation didn’t offer first grade. Tuesday morning, OneApp was accepting applications. Thursday, one first-grader had enrolled.

OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a written statement that the school “is in a unique position to meet the repeated citywide requests from community members to open seats for students entering the first grade.”

As of Wednesday, there were at least 119 first-grade seats open in New Orleans.

Neither RSD, which runs OneApp, nor OPSB, which chartered Foundation, responded to repeated requests for the school’s current enrollment.

King wouldn’t say, either. She said Friday that she had hit her target and was “confident we will continue to grow next month.”

The state funds schools based on how many students are in class on Oct. 1. That gives King a bit more time to get students into seats.

Based on conversations with district officials and educators, “We keep hearing we’ll have a lot of students who are coming in August or September,” she said.

One day in July, King picked up a mother who didn’t have a car and brought her to an enrollment center so she could sign up for Foundation. If the mother had walked into Einstein Charter School next door, she could have applied right there.

King waited outside the enrollment center at Dillard University for a couple hours. When the mother came out, she said she was told that her daughter, who doesn’t speak English, should be in first grade. So she agreed to put her in another school.

King told the mother that her daughter could attend Foundation Prep as a kindergartener. The mom went back in and asked to be switched.

“So,” King said, “they transferred her back over to us.”

This story has been updated to include current enrollment figures provided Thursday, Aug. 13. 

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About 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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • nickelndime

    There is a Foundation Prep board meeting tonight (08/12/2015) at VIET – I mean Foundation Prep – at 6 PM. If you want to know what the enrollment numbers are, be there. This almost mirrors “Lagniappe.” Can’t even tell you if the modulars are in place, but Foundation will definitely have to contract for busing. Foundation Prep is in the “backyard” shadow of another OPSB charter that has been up and running since 2006.
    Somebody wasn’t thinking! Now why would the OPSB even approve another charter in this area. It, too, is saturated. The problem is partly propaganda and partly outright theft.
    King – the Foundation Prep CEO – has an expired teaching certificate – just to be in a classroom. What made this board and the OPSB think that it needed another attorney (which King is) to run a public charter school?
    08/12/2015 4:25 PM DST USA

  • Lee Barrios

    Couple little questions – I don’t really know how it works for OPSB, but when BESE approves charter CONTRACTS (RSD) they approve specifically by grade level. Adding or removing a grade is considered a major change and must also be approved by BESE meaning it must go through the APA process, I think……

    Interesting that there are so many open seats in these lower grades considering that RSD said it would not approve McDonogh High for those grade levels because they were saturated with them. Then they assigned Bricolage to the building. Now you are saying there is a glut of early childhood seats. What about High School seats Marta?

    I am curious what this means: Cypress Academy applies a hands on approach in the classroom.

    The idea that children continue to hunt around for schools well into the second month is a clear indication that children are not receiving appropriate instruction and it would seem that the One App process is being subverted.

    Thanks for the expose Marta. The charter takeover is a sham.

  • nickelndime

    Oh, Lee Barrios! WE (ASP and I) are off our chair. WE read the first six sentences…of your comment, and WE both fell off.
    WE heard that Marta Jewson of THE LENS was at that meeting tonight – and WE also heard that M. Moran King (CEO) couldn’t lock up the VIET building fast enough and get outta there – at which time she threw the attention to Mr. Sherman, Esq. of the Cherhardy Law Firm, who is President of the Foundation Board.
    08/12/2015 11:04 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    WE heard it was a 20-minute Foundation Prep Board meeting. Kinda makes you wonder where exactly this group (a non-profit already on the public teat) is conducting business.
    08/12/2015 11:10 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    The people over at Foundation Prep are talking about instruction in second languages (Vietnamese and Spanish). Considering the lack of professional educational experience of the CEO (and the board), what do you think the prospects for Special Education services will be over there?
    08/12/2015 11:51 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Foundation Prep has already received MFP money as of August 1, 2015 based on its enrollment numbers. What are the enrollment numbers? 108? 75? 40? 10? Stan Smith knows what was paid out. Where’s Stan?
    08/13/2015 12:01 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “Charter incubators,” non-profits like 4.0, run by former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO – founded by sitting OPSB member, Sarah Usdin, who represents Lakeview), Matt Candler, continue to be funded by Gates, the Waltons, and yes, the U.S. Department of Education.

    Americans need to stop the bleeding of public education dollars and instead, insist that real money be invested in the education of those students who need an excellent education the most. WE are not talking about that (expletive deleted) former Governor of Louisiana, Jindal, and his band-aid approach. OMAGAWD! Back up! Is Yo’ GovernorShip still here and eating India-franchised Subway cookies!? Moving ahead.

    Please stop figuring out ways to keep poor children out of schools that have the best certified teachers, the best certified administrators, the best resources, and the best facilities.

    These kids are not even near to getting an even break or an equal opportunity if “language” or “parental income” or anything else is used to separate them (discriminate) from the “haves.”

    For shame, OPSB. For shame, RSD. For shame, BESE (all of you – none of you are worth a damn). For shame, LDOE (most of them – except a few worker bees, whom WE can count on one hand).
    08/13/2015 3:57 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Maybe somebody needs to tell the NEW NEW NEW Academic Superintendent of the New Orleans Public Schools what the rules are (how to conduct “bizness 101”). DIS AIN’T THE JPPSS, GIRLS. It shor as hell ain’t St. Bernard Parish (a moment of silence), and it ain’t East Feliciana either. WE (ASP and I) think WE have covered all “the Deities,” although ASP has just informed me that King Tut’s MAMA has been located – just when WE thought all she had suffered was severe head trauma by accident!
    08/13/2015 6:27 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “NEW” OPSB-authorized charter schools appear to be able to “open” on time (although they don’t have students), whereas the OPSB cannot ensure that existing schools with students open on time (starting dates)!

    Cases in point: Delayed openings for Lusher Elementary (Lower campus); McDonogh #35. Are there any more WE should know about? The OPSB doesn’t have that many schools to oversee.

    The multitude of school opening dates with staggered grades is bad enough. It’s a gaddam bad joke to try to fool the public into believing that the quality of the public schools in New Orleans is better than it actually is by waving uniforms, supply lists, and different opening dates in front of parents and the community.

    The OPSB, BESE, and/or the RSD are the charter authorizers. The tail wags the dog in practically everything that goes on in this city. New Orleans is out of control.

    And it’s only Sunday – the first day of another brand new week.
    08/16/2015 8:39 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    The federal money awarded to the RSD is 1.4 billion dollars, but take a look at what the OPSB has received (compliments of NOLA.COM) – the Timbers Office in Algiers, busses, and campus by campus. This is unconscionable, and OPSB member Harwood “Woody” Koppel, says, it (the OPSB) is “out of money” and needs to auction off more OPSB properties. This is a travesty at two levels: state and local. Both are thieves of public money.
    08/24/2015 3:27 AM DST USA