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Singleton charter school won’t expand to Mahalia Jackson site after standardized test irregularities

Allegations of cheating and impropriety on standardized tests at James M. Singleton Charter School have already led to the firing of four educators and the CEO’s resignation from Dryades YMCA, which runs the school.

Now the YMCA has backed out of its plan to take over the facility housing Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, according to a news release issued Thursday afternoon.

The Orleans Parish School Board decided in November to close Mahalia Jackson, one of its last few direct-run schools, but it wanted another organization to take over the facility. It chose Dryades.

Dryades planned to split its students across the two campuses, which are blocks apart in Central City.

“It is unfortunate that recent developments will not allow us to continue this particular partnership,” school board President John A. Brown Sr. said in the release.

Mahalia Jackson shares its campus with a health clinic and a preschool program. Those programs will remain open, the school board said Thursday.

Its vote to hand the facility to Dryades came several weeks after the state voided LEAP tests for dozens of Singleton students.

Some were voided because they lacked proper documentation for receiving special accommodations; other exams had an excessive number of answers changed from wrong to right, indicating cheating.

Some students are allowed to have help on state exams, such as extra time or having questions read aloud to them, but that must be documented in their Individual Education Plan.

In December, the state voided even more exams because the school couldn’t say why those students had received extra help.

Overall, exams for 165 students were voided at the 410-student school.

“Unfortunately, at this time, the Dryades YMCA will not be able to move forward with the planned expansion to the Mahalia Jackson facility,” said Darren Mire, chairman of the Dryades YMCA board, in the news release.

“The board determined that it would be prudent to focus on our current organizational transition,” he said.

Mire told The Lens last week that as the board was sorting out what had happened on the tests, some school employees’ answers didn’t add up. “We realized this is a systematic problem,” he said.

Four Singleton employees, including the head of the school, were fired. Their lawyer said they did nothing wrong and didn’t receive a fair hearing before losing their jobs.

That was followed by the resignation of CEO Gregory Phillips.

Singleton is investigating the testing irregularities and must submit a report to the state Department of Education.

The school district will provide more information about what will happen to the Mahalia Jackson facility at the board’s Feb. 22 meeting.

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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.