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Orleans Parish school district plans to shut down McDonogh 35 and start over with a new, privately operated school with the same name

The Orleans Parish school district is looking for a private operator to phase out McDonogh 35 Senior High School this fall, and it wants another firm to open a new school in its place with the same name, mascot and colors.

But the new school won’t be a charter. The district describes it as a “non-charter contract”  overseen by the school district.

In a news release issued late Wednesday, the district described the move as a way to “reinvigorate” the historic high school.

McDonogh 35, the first public high school for African-Americans in Louisiana, was highly regarded for decades. But it has struggled academically since Katrina.

“This is about guaranteeing the legacy of instructional, academic and community excellence that McDonogh 35 has long been known for,” school board vice president Leslie Ellison said in the release. “I am proud to stand with Superintendent Lewis as we make this important initial step toward securing the future of this remarkable school.”

The two-part plan is unusual even for New Orleans, where schools start up, turn over and shut down every year, and most public schools are independent charters open to anyone in the city.

In its news release, the school district listed a number of supporters of the plan, including several notable alumni. That includes the alumni group, according to a tweet posted by the district Friday morning.

Lifelong educator Gertrude Ivory, vice president of the alumni association and chair of the Future of McDonogh 35 Committee, wouldn’t comment on whether that’s true.

She said her group tried to get the school district “to maintain McDonogh 35 as a direct-run school. But that did not happen.”

She said superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. “didn’t feel he would have the capacities to support a school given that most of the schools are charters and he’s getting back the state schools.”*

The Recovery School District will hand over all schools under its oversight to the local school board this summer.

News of the plan spread quickly through the McDonogh 35 community Thursday and Friday, spurring the school district to tweet that the school “will remain OPEN & PUBLIC.”

“We have been assured that McDonogh 35 would not be shut down and it would be maintained as its own entity,” Ivory said.

That’s partly true. The district is pursuing two operators — one to “wind down” the direct-run school and another to start a new school with the same name.

Lewis was not available to discuss it the plan. Board members Ethan Ashley, Sarah Usdin, Nolan Marshall Jr., John Brown Sr. and Leslie Ellison did not respond to requests for comment. Board member Ben Kleban said he had no comment and referred The Lens to the district’s administration.

McDonogh 35 is one of the last four schools run directly by the locally elected school board. Two of the others, Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School and Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology, will convert to charters this summer. One, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, is closing.

With the phase-out of McDonogh 35, the city’s elected school board will not actually run any schools — a novel approach in the country. With the exception of McDonogh 35 and a program in the youth detention center, every school will be a charter.

In its request for applicants to shut down the current school and to open the new one, the school district wrote that its “core role is to serve as the authorizer, regulator, and oversight entity for public education in New Orleans.”

Under the plan outlined by the school district, McDonogh 35 won’t accept ninth-graders next year and must close within three years. The school will shrink as older students graduate.

Starting in 2019, another firm will operate what the school board calls a “non-charter contract” school. It will grow a grade each year, starting with 9th grade.

The new school must keep the same name, its maroon and gold colors and Roneagle, the school’s legendary mascot.

The request also states the district’s goals to increase socio-economic diversity and attract private school students. About 95 percent of the school’s 837 students are classified as economically disadvantaged, and 13 percent of them have disabilities, according to state records.

The closing school and the new one could share the same building for a few years. McDonogh 35 moved from its bat-infested home in the 7th Ward to a new facility in the St. Bernard neighborhood in 2015.

New Orleans’ shift to charters

After Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, the state’s Recovery School District seized control of the city’s failing schools, leaving only about 20 in the hands of the locally elected school board.

Several of the schools that remained under local control converted to charters immediately after the storm so they could reopen more quickly.

Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded. To remain open, they must meet annual academic and financial goals. Charter contracts are generally issued for three to five years, sometimes longer if a school performs exceptionally well.

In subsequent years, the Recovery School District slowly closed schools and handed others over to charter groups. Eventually, all of its schools were charters.

Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish School Board has been getting out of the business of running schools. It has closed traditional schools, converted others to charters and approved several new charters.

The central office has shrunk dramatically since Katrina, with a fraction of the staffers it once had.

In the wake of the vast decentralization, the two districts have restored some services taken for granted under a traditional school district.

Most schools in the city participate in a centralized enrollment lottery, called OneApp. An expulsion board was created to prevent schools from pushing students out for frivolous reasons.

Some schools continue to struggle with how to properly serve children who need special education. Some children face long bus rides as they travel across the city to school, spurring the district to study transportation issues.

Tough for charters to turn around high schools?

The decision to shut McDonogh 35 and start over comes after several failed attempts to charter it.

In 2015, a group of alumni wanted to convert the high school to a charter, but they didn’t complete the application process.*

In the past two years, the district has sought groups to take over the school. Last spring, central office employees were involved in a failed attempt to charter it and all the remaining traditional schools.

Two of the administrators involved in the effort now work at at McDonogh 35, according to its website.

Seventh and eighth grades were phased out over two years, ending in 2017. That year, the high school’s state-assigned letter grade dropped from a C to a D.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, read the requests for proposals released by the district. She said they appear to seek options for the school, potentially with an eye toward restoring admissions requirements.

McDonogh 35 used to have admission requirements; they were dropped after Katrina, and test scores fell.

“I believe Mac 35 will drive a conversation at the school board level and in the public around selective enrollment versus non-selective enrollment schools,” she said. “If the idea is that they want to be more selective in nature, charter law does not allow them to do that.”

In the past, struggling schools have been handed over to charter operators to turn them around. Shirley said they’ve found it’s difficult to turn around a failing high school.

“Remember, as charters, you only have so much time,” she said. “I think there would be plenty of people to tell you at the high school level that’s almost impossible to do.”

The new plan: shut down and start over

The district released two requests for proposals seeking firms to handle the two different jobs — one to phase out the current school and another to open the new one. It doesn’t want the same operator to do both.

The firm handling the phase-out will hire its own staff. The district prefers it use the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, the state pension plan that many charter schools opt not to use because it’s expensive.

A spokeswoman for the district said officials don’t know when the 136 current employees will have their last day at work, how much the plan will cost or whether the school board would need to approve the contracts. All that depends on the proposals received, she said.

Both firms must outline the curriculum they plan to use, how they will serve special education students, and which types of diplomas they will provide.

They must outline plans to involve alumni, their budgets, their management fee and how they will account for government funds. The groups must define punishment for certain offenses, echoing the district’s tightened oversight of discipline in recent years.

The proposals are due at the end of March; the district wants to present a full plan in the spring.

This story was updated after publication with a comment from an alumni group leaders, to note that The Lens tried to reach board members to comment on the proposal, and to include figures on how many students are economically disadvantaged and have disabilities. (Feb. 9, 2018)

*Corrections: This story originally stated that a group of alumni tried to charter the school in 2015 and their application was denied. They submitted a letter of intent, but they didn’t complete an application. This story also misquoted Gertrude Ivory. She said the superintendent told her he couldn’t “support” a school, not “start” a school as the story originally stated. The story has been corrected. (Feb. 9 and 10, 2018)

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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.