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24 hours after CEO floats idea, New Beginnings board votes to close Gentilly Terrace Charter School

The board for the New Beginnings Schools Foundation voted to close Gentilly Terrace Charter School Thursday night, just one day after parents learned about it.

Board member Val Marshall said parents weren’t given enough notice.

“I spoke with parents this afternoon who had no earthly idea until they saw the news that we were looking at merging Gentilly Terrace” and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, she said.

The board voted 5-3 to relinquish its charter for Gentilly Terrace, effectively closing the D-rated school at the end of the academic year.

Gentilly Terrace has 432 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. New Beginnings plans to send them to Capdau, a C-rated school.

Capdau is moving into a brand-new, $27 million school in Gentilly in fall 2017. But there are not enough students at Capdau to fill the facility at the Avery C. Alexander campus, which can hold 788 students.

Schools in Louisiana are funded according to how many students they have. Capdau has had an average enrollment of 395 students in the past three years, CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams told the board. That’s well below the number needed to balance the books, she said.

Capdau is running a deficit so far this school year, Blouin-Williams said.

Some board members weren’t convinced they should relocate Gentilly Terrace students to hit the enrollment goal. Shelia Danzey said the Orleans Parish School Board caused the problem by building such a large, expensive school. She asked for a year to fill it.

That way, ”we would not be recommending closing one of our schools to fix a problem we did not create,” she said.

She questioned why Blouin-Williams wanted to close one of her schools rather than seek students from others. “I do not think we’ve really thought this out clearly,” she said.

Other board members supported the decision.

“We’re not proposing closing a school,” said Travis Chase. “We’re proposing moving a school out of an existing building. … I see us as stronger together.”

Board president Leslie Bouie said New Beginnings doesn’t have the option of not filling the school. “We had to come up with a way to fill that building or go into a deficit,” she said.

New Beginnings is responsible for maintenance, utilities and other costs that increase with the size of the building.

Enrollment at new campus questioned

Board member Wanda Brooks questioned Blouin-Williams’ assertion that the merger will bring Capdau to more than 600 students.

“Have we surveyed those parents to ask them, ‘If we close the school, will you move with us?’” Brooks asked.

“If I’m not happy as a parent, I have parent choice and I don’t have to move with you,” she said. “So we’re assuming those parents are going to move with us.”

Blouin-Williams said parents had been notified. Asked when, she said, “Yesterday.”

In that letter, she touted the benefits of the new building, including central air conditioning, carpool lanes and handicapped accessibility.

“A healthy building fosters a healthy learning environment,” she wrote. “It is clear that the aging Gentilly Terrace is not conducive to best facilitate 21st Century learning.”

She told Gentilly Terrace parents their kids would be able to attend the new school without applying through EnrollNOLA, the centralized enrollment system also known as OneApp.

“If the proposed consolidation is successful, no enrollment action (EnrollNOLA) will be necessary as your student will automatically re-enroll to our new campus for the 2017-2018 school year,” she wrote.

It’s unclear how that would work. A hallmark of the city’s charter-dominated school system is that parents get to choose where their children go. In most cases, they choose by ranking schools in order of preference on OneApp.

When other schools have been closed, those students have been given first choice in the OneApp lottery. In almost every case, their charters were revoked because they failed to meet academic or operational standards.

After the meeting, Blouin-Williams said she would work with parents to ensure she meets the enrollment goal for the new building. “They would have to opt out” of going to Capdau, she said.

Board attorney Michelle Craig said the network is talking with the Recovery School District, which runs OneApp, about automatic enrollment. Recovery School District officials did not respond to an email sent late Thursday.

Brooks asked if the board could delay the decision, but no one gave a clear answer. Blouin-Williams said she wanted to make the decision before the first round of OneApp starts on Nov. 1.

Meeting agenda didn’t say school would be closed

The agenda for Thursday’s meeting initially said, “Approval of Action(s) Designed to Drive Efficiencies in the Network and fully utilize the Avery Alexander site.”

The Lens emailed a network employee to ask what that meant, pointing out that state law on public meetings requires agendas to specifically say what the board will discuss and decide.

Soon after, the charter organization sent out a new agenda. It said, “Approval of consolidation of Gentilly Terrace with Pierre Capdau at the Avery Alexander site.”

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