Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has fielded a lot of questions in the past couple of days from board members and alumni about his plan to phase out McDonogh 35 Senior High School and start over with a new school of the same name.

His answers to the school board Tuesday offered few details. Alumni who attended a closed-door meeting with Lewis on Monday night said they didn’t get answers to a host of questions, such as:

  • Whether the school will be open to all students
  • The difference between a charter school and Lewis’ plan to contract with private firms
  • What would happen if he doesn’t find someone to run the school starting this fall

The school board met Tuesday for the first time since the school district announced its plans to phase out its last traditionally run school and start up another that also would be called McDonogh 35.

The announcement was made Feb. 8, an hour before the first night of parades started in the week leading up to Mardi Gras.

At Tuesday’s accountability committee meeting, Lewis said the high school, the first for African-Americans in Louisiana, has represented “black excellence, resilience and triumph” for more than 100 years.

“But it’s no secret,” he said, “in recent years — starting well before I became superintendent — there have been issues at 35.”

“It is clear that a change is needed. Our kids need 35 to be what it used to be. So the path to success is to provide a fresh start to a new operator, giving them the path to success.”—Henderson Lewis Jr., Orleans Parish school district

“It is clear that a change is needed,” Lewis said. “Our kids need 35 to be what it used to be. So the path to success is to provide a fresh start to a new operator, giving them the path to success.”

That’s where his plan comes in. The district is seeking a contractor to phase out the school over three years. Starting next fall, no new students will be admitted, and enrollment will shrink each year as current students graduate.

The district wants a separate company to start a school that would accept ninth-graders in the fall of 2019. It would grow a grade each year.

Lewis has described the arrangement as a “non-charter contract.”

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, he said he wanted to set the record straight about what’s happening to the school.

“Unfortunately, a lot of half-truth rumors are being spread online about 35 closing down, and a private, unaccountable firm being installed. This is not true,” Lewis said.

“I wanted to be crystal clear about the basics. First of all, McDonogh 35 will remain open and a public school. All current students can stay until they graduate from high school.”

The school district is, in fact, seeking a private operator to “wind down” — that’s the term it uses in its request for proposals — the traditional school.

Meanwhile, a second private operator would start a new high school, which would be required to keep the McDonogh 35 name, colors and mascot.

All this comes after the district failed to find a charter operator for McDonogh 35. Lewis appeared to support last year’s failed bid by district staff to convert the high school and the district’s four other traditional schools.

The school district now has four traditional schools after one was converted to a charter last summer.

This summer, two of those are set to convert to charters and one is set to close, leaving McDonogh 35 as the city’s only traditional school. And the district doesn’t want to operate it.

In its news release, the district described its role as an authorizer and regulator, not an agency that runs schools.

Education experts have said they don’t know of another local school district in the country that doesn’t actually run any of its schools.

Private entity would run school, but it wouldn’t be a charter

“What’s different about the contract opportunity that we think might present more potential operators that are qualified?” board member Ben Kleban asked at Tuesday’s meeting.

Alumni said Lewis was asked that question many times Monday night.

“We believe the best way to sustainable success is to start with a ninth grade academy and grow,” said Colleston Morgan Jr., chief strategy officer.

If a charter were to take over the school, it would have to take over every grade.

“To eat the whole thing at once, in the high school context, can be particularly challenging. So working through the contract model gives us flexibility in terms of structuring enrollment and having a gradual phase-out.”—Colleston Morgan Jr., Orleans Parish school district

“To eat the whole thing at once, in the high school context, can be particularly challenging,” Morgan said. “So working through the contract model gives us flexibility in terms of structuring enrollment and having a gradual phase-out.”

Charter schools generally have five-year contracts, subject to an initial review after three years. Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, said it’s hard to turn around a school, particularly a high school, that quickly.

Will McDonogh 35 return to selective-admission?

When she read the district’s documents, Shirley said she thought it could allow the contractor to restore admissions requirements.

The school had admissions requirements before Hurricane Katrina. They were dropped after the storm.

“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.”

State law does not allow new charters to have admissions requirements unless there’s a special focus such as a foreign language or arts.

After Monday night’s meeting, alumnus Isaac Belonga said the district has been going through the motions in operating the school since Katrina.

“In their effort to hurry and get the school open, they went to general admission, and they staff the school differently,” he said.

Lewis wouldn’t tell The Lens on Monday whether the school would reinstate admissions requirements. Asked the same question, board member Nolan Marshall Jr. responded, “I can’t predict the future.”

Questions about running two schools at once

The district has not responded to questions about whether the two entities will share a School Performance Score, the state’s method of ranking performance. Other factors, such as the management fee, will depend on the contractor.

“Do you anticipate any difficulty in getting a transitional operator?” board member John Brown asked. “And if there are none available, what would be the plan?”

In a lengthy answer, Lewis described his requests for proposals and his expectation that the district will get applicants for the transitional and long-term arrangements.

If no one applies to run the school in the short-term, “I’m not saying today the next phase would be to directly manage the school, but that would certainly be an option,” he said.

Kleban, former CEO of New Orleans College Prep, asked if the district has studied how much it will cost to operate the short-term school.

“Having been involved in a similar type of transition at another high school, I know that wind-down is very costly, especially if you want to maintain the level of services for the kids who are there now,” he said. “As the scale gets smaller and smaller, that’s very difficult.”

Morgan said staff had looked at it a bit but hadn’t done any estimates, “in part because we want to be responsive to the proposals.”

Marshall asked why Lewis wants to keep ninth-graders from enrolling in the fall, which would leave a gap in graduating classes.

Lewis responded, “Why would we enroll additional students when we’re trying to get this right?”

Lewis said he has promised alumni there will be a graduating class each year. That could happen if the long-term operator started with a three-year, accelerated program, he said.

The district has not responded to The Lens’ question about whether the board must approve the contracts, though Lewis said at the board meeting he will ask for their approval.

“We have a responsibility to at least save the legacy of the school.”—Damon Smothers, Smothers Academy

Alumna Alicia Plummer said Lewis did not answer that question at the meeting with alumni Monday night.

The CEO of Smothers Academy, a charter school located in Jefferson, attended that meeting. He graduated from McDonogh in 1988.

He said his school plans to apply to run the school long-term. “We have a responsibility to at least save the legacy of the school,” he said.

Alumni express a mixture of frustration and optimism

Monday night’s meeting with alumni association members took place in the auditorium of the school, located at 4000 Cadillac St. Only alumni were allowed in; community members and parents were turned away.

One of those who couldn’t get in was the Rev. Willie Calhoun.

“It’s very interesting that the alumni association decided they didn’t want the public involved,” Calhoun said.

Meetings like this don’t fall under the state Open Meetings Law as long as a quorum of a public board, committee or advisory committee is not present. The Lens knows one board member, Marshall, attended.

State Rep. Joe Bouie Jr., who represents the district where McDonogh 35 is located, wasn’t allowed in. He’s known for his criticism of charter schools.

Alumni leaving the meeting expressed a mixture of optimism and frustration.

Nikki Napoleon, who graduated in 1992, said Lewis “wasn’t giving clear answers. … Individuals kept asking the same questions over and over again.”

She said he was asked repeatedly to explain the difference between a charter and a private operator. Lewis told the crowd that two entities would come in “and they’re going to operate the school as they see fit.”

Alumna Anjanielle Henry, an educator, said she was glad alumni could voice their concerns.

“I don’t think the superintendent was very clear about his plans. It was not clear what was going to happen if he didn’t find an operator to meet these plans. He dodged that question.”—Anjanielle Henry, McDonogh 35 alumna

“I don’t think the superintendent was very clear about his plans. It was not clear what was going to happen if he didn’t find an operator to meet these plans,” she said. “He dodged that question.”

Others alumni were pleased the superintendent came out. “I’m optimistic,” Jacqueline Rodriguez said. “They took time to listen.”

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...