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New Orleans’ last two traditional public high schools have another suitor: InspireNOLA

Two charter organizations are vying to take over New Orleans’ last two traditional public high schools. One is a new charter network organized by the schools’ principals; the other is an experienced charter group in the city.

The principals of Eleanor McMain Secondary School and McDonogh 35 Senior High School are part of the ExCEED Network, which wants to convert those schools to charters along with the other three traditional schools run by the Orleans Parish School District.

InspireNOLA Charter Schools, which runs three schools, wants to create another like its Edna Karr High School, which has an A rating from the state.

McMain and McDonogh 35 have long histories, and InspireNOLA wants to preserve those traditions, said InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely.

“I think what makes us even more interested is both of these schools resemble the status of what Karr was before Katrina,” McKneely said.

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. made the rounds to the district’s five remaining traditional schools this month, after he said principals had expressed interest in converting to charter schools.

He’s told parents the benefits of becoming a charter, promising that nothing will change and their children will keep their spots at the school. At times, he has appeared to speak on behalf of ExCEED Network.

The principals of the schools would continue to run them if ExCEED takes them over.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but they’re run by private, nonprofit groups. Day-to-day decisions, such as school calendars and curriculum, are left to the charter schools. They must meet certain benchmarks, including academic performance, in order to keep their charters.

If the five schools are converted to charters, New Orleans would be the first city in the nation with no traditional public schools run by an elected board.

McKneely said parents, alumni and community members encouraged his organization to apply to take over the schools.

“One of the key aspects of chartering in New Orleans is to provide options for families and students,” McKneely said. “We hope that by … deciding to engage in the process, we’re able to provide more options.”

A charter organization can “replicate” one of its schools if it has made it past the initial charter period and is meeting its academic and other goals.The state board of education requires the new school to serve the same grades and enrollment area.

InspireNOLA took over Andrew Wilson Charter School in 2015. Its state-assigned letter grade went from an F to the equivalent of a C in its first year. The charter group also runs the A-rated Alice M. Harte Elementary School.

Friday was the deadline for groups to file notices of intent to open a charter school or convert any of the last five traditional schools to charters. The district posted the applications today. The full applications are due February 24.

The letters include InspireNOLA’s request, which was submitted in December.

The forms ask applicants to say which school they want to convert, but InspireNOLA didn’t fill in that part. McKneely said he would be happy to run either McMain or McDonogh 35 — and potentially both, though he’d have to examine whether he has the capacity. His group is also pursuing the takeover of McDonogh 42 Elementary School.

“We are going to galvanize support for our replication and follow whatever procedure has been outlined,” he said. “With the understanding that both organizations are allowed to engage with stakeholders.”

McKneely said his group will respect the desire of the school communities.

“We do not have a preference,” he said. “If we’re selected by the stakeholders we will definitely work with them to get the job done.”

However, parents and teachers will not vote on whether they want to convert to a charter or who would run it. McKneely said he doesn’t have an opinion on the matter.

In the past, the Orleans Parish School Board has sometimes required such a vote, according to Adam Hawf, chief of staff for the school district.

The decision on who gets the school will be made by Lewis, with the approval of the school board. Applicants have been asked to submit evidence that parents and teachers support their charter.

Principals at McDonogh 35 and Benjamin Franklin Mathematics and Science School have sent students home with fill-in-the-blank letters supporting ExCEED’s application.

The deadline for charter applications is Feb. 24, the same day parents must choose schools through OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system.

The district’s timeline says decisions on charters will be made by May 16, but it could be earlier.

McKneely said a lot needs to happen between that decision and the start of the school year, such as setting up curriculum and arranging finances.

“If you can build yourself at least six or seven months, that really helps,” he said. “Even if it’s ExCEED, the faster they can build their financial and hiring protocols, the better off they are.”

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