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Parents get three days’ notice that Cypress Academy will close at the end of the school year

Three days before summer break at Cypress Academy, the small charter school told parents that Wednesday will be its last day — forever.

Students will be transferred automatically to Lafayette Academy Extension at Dunbar, a Choice Foundation charter school. If they don’t want to go there, they can enter the citywide enrollment lottery, but the deadline for the second round is Friday and seats at the most desirable schools are usually taken by now.

“There was no hint that something like this could happen,” parent Wesley Cheek wrote in an email Sunday night. He learned about the closure in an email announcement Sunday evening.

Earlier Sunday, he talked with other parents at a birthday party for a son’s classmate. Although it has been a rough year, “we had talked about how we were all coming back next year because … our kids liked each other and we really believed in the school and Dr. [Bob] Berk,” the school leader.

Berk founded the school in 2016 with a focus on students with special-education needs, saying they weren’t well served by some private schools where he had worked.

The 105-student charter school initially planned just a kindergarten its inaugural year. But it had trouble attracting enough students, so it added first grade, too. The same thing happened with Foundation Preparatory Academy, another charter that started up that year,

Berk and Board President Lance Query referred to that challenge in their message to the school community.

“Unfortunately, we remain a relatively small school and our lack of scale in student numbers makes it very difficult to pay for the quality our students and families have come to expect and deserve,” they wrote.

When a charter school closes, those students often get priority in OneApp, putting them ahead of other students. But Chief Student Access Officer Gabriela Fighetti said Cypress students will not receive priority because the students will be transferred to Dunbar unless they choose otherwise.

Two weeks ago, a year-end funding shortfall caught charter schools off guard. Some will have to dip into their reserve funds, and school leaders said the shortfall could hurt small schools more.

Berk didn’t immediately respond to questions and said he could speak Monday afternoon.

Cypress rented classrooms at Touro Synagogue when it opened and moved to a building on Orleans Avenue for the current school year.

Cheek said he liked that Cypress emphasized community over standardized test scores. (The school hasn’t received an official grade from the state.) The school reserved 20 percent of its seats for students at risk for a reading disability.

Cypress’ board of directors met Sunday. Although state law requires meetings to be announced at least one business day in advance, the notice went out on Saturday.

The agenda said nothing about the school closing. It did mention a “potential partnership” with the Choice Foundation, but no vote was planned on the matter.

State law also requires that agendas include enough detail to give people an idea of what will be discussed at the meeting.

Sunday’s announcement was foreshadowed by the board’s April meeting.

“Our end-of-year cash will not be enough to fund our budget deficit for the next year,” board secretary Erika May wrote.

“While we are optimistic about some development possibilities, we are concerned about the budget shortfall and anticipate that the board will need to make some difficult decisions at the May 2018 board meeting,” she wrote.

Berk and Query wrote in their announcement that Lafayette Academy has the “capacity and capital – financial and human” to support Cypress students. They wrote that they respect the school’s model and hope parents transfer their children there.

Parent Jenny Schecter said she looked online for information about Dunbar after learning Cypress will close. She found little. On the school’s website, an overview page says “Coming soon!”

“The email was sent last evening but I don’t usually check my email. It’s family time,” Schecter said. “I was alerted by a text message of a friend who found out on Facebook.”

Schecter said she and her husband didn’t enter OneApp for their six-year-old son this year because they wanted him to attend Cypress through eighth grade.

“There just aren’t that many schools left that are going to be able to meet the needs of our family,” she said.

Cheek feels stuck, too. “Where did this come from?” he wrote. “Why are we finding out this late? Is this an appropriate way to handle things? What the hell is the Lafayette Academy Dunbar Extension?”

“How are we supposed to explain all of this to a 6 year-old?” he asked.

Cypress isn’t the first charter school to decide to close its doors and team up with a larger network in search of more resources. In 2014, the board of McDonogh City Park Academy voted to have ReNEW Schools come in and run the charter school. In December, after the school received an F, ReNEW decided to close it.

Cypress will hold a parent meeting Tuesday night.

Parent Jeremy Dewberry has invited other parents to join him 7 p.m. Monday night at 6690 Fleur de Lis Drive at 7 p.m. to prepare for that meeting.

Cheek described the process as “insanely disrespectful.”

“We clearly have no choice in this situation,” he wrote. “We either move to Dunbar or take the leftovers.”

This story was updated after publication to include information from the board’s April meeting and on a parent meeting Monday night. (May 21, 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.