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Two days after parents learned Cypress Academy will close, parish superintendent decides to keep it open

The Orleans Parish school district announced Tuesday it will run Cypress Academy next year, two days after the small charter school surprised families by saying it would close for good Wednesday.

At a tear-filled meeting Monday night, several parents said the decision to close the school caught them completely off guard. They said they were frustrated that the late notice gave them just a few days to find another school with open seats before a deadline for the city’s enrollment lottery.

Their other choice, arranged by Cypress, was an automatic transfer to a Choice Foundation charter school they knew little about.

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. agrees.

“Our consistent message has been that it is too late in the year to close this school and we must seek a solution that provides stability to families,” Lewis said in a news release sent Tuesday afternoon.

Parent Jeremy Dewberry said he’s glad the school will remain open. “I still have some questions about what this means for Cypress,” he said, such as whether this is a “stop-gap” measure.

Parent Wesley Cheek said he’s relieved — for now, at least. He believes the school district took action in response to community outcry.

“I am very happy that the OPSB has acknowledged that the situation is unfair to students and families,” he said.

But he wonders how this will change Cypress’ atmosphere next year.

Cypress Academy leader Bob Berk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

School will be one of two directly run by the parish school district

The school district’s announcement came after a group of parents sent a strongly worded letter to Orleans Parish School Board members and Cypress Academy’s board and administration.

They questioned how this could have happened so suddenly and why they were being forced into a new school they knew nothing about, Lafayette Academy at Dunbar Elementary.

Families who didn’t want to attend Lafayette could enter the lottery, but they wouldn’t get special treatment.

“We ask that you offer real solutions to this terrible situation in which you have put our families,” they wrote. “We need you to be accountable and transparent about this decision and this process.

In the news release announcing the takeover, Orleans Parish School Board President John A. Brown Sr. said, “School operators must do better to ensure families have the adequate time and information to make critical enrollment decisions for their children.”

Under Lewis’ plan, the school board will run Cypress itself. All families currently enrolled will be guaranteed a seat.

Families who want to participate in the second round of the city’s centralized enrollment lottery will get an extra week to make that decision.

School faced financial crunch

April meeting minutes show the school administration had financial concerns.
“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 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.

It’s unclear whether the school’s curriculum will remain after the school district takes it over.

In a Tuesday email to Cypress Board President Lance Query and other board members, Lewis said the board must surrender its charter this week. If it doesn’t, he’ll consider revoking its charter.

Lewis wrote that the charter will remain responsible for the Dibert Elementary building until an agreement is worked out on when its lease will end.

Cypress will hold a meeting for families Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. at 4217 Orleans Avenue. Parish school district employees will be there. So will The Lens.

Live coverage of parents’ meeting at Cypress, Tuesday 7 p.m. CT

This story was updated after publication to include reaction from parents and context about the school and its financial situation. (May 22, 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.