Nobles Minds charter school opened in 2017. This year, it moved to a new location on Carrollton Avenue. Credit: Sharon Lurye / The Hechinger Report

Two New Orleans public schools that make a point to serve special education students will have to make budget adjustments if they can’t hit enrollment targets by the beginning of next month, when the state takes a formal enrollment count.

Cypress Academy in Mid-City is 71 students shy of its budgeted enrollment of 265 students, a district official announced this week. That’s about a 25 percent gap.

“We are actively working with our finance team to address the financial ramifications and will be bringing a plan forward for consideration at the October board meeting,” district Chief of Schools Rene Lewis-Carter told Orleans Parish School Board members Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning has already amended its budget, including a cut in hours for some employees. The state-authorized charter school had 53 students as of Tuesday. That was 17 short of its original 70-student goal.

“Our short-term goal is to get to 60,” Noble Minds CEO Vera Triplett told her charter board members Wednesday.

“As a result of the lower enrollment we have had to make staffing cuts,” she said. “We just had to respond to our new financial reality.”

Orleans Parish has a unique funding formula that — on top of a base per-pupil amount — provides extra funding depending on the severity of a student’s special education needs. However, sometimes that money isn’t enough to cover services for students with particularly intense need. However, it only applies to direct-run and district-authorized charter schools, not Triplett’s state-authorized charter.

”We just had to respond to our new financial reality.”—Vera Triplett, Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning

Back at Cypress, parents are a little too familiar with budget shortfalls.

In May, grappling with a projected budget shortfall for the 2018-19 school year, the Mid-City charter school’s board decided to shutter the school. The board announced the decision just three days before the end of the school year, sending many Cypress families into a tailspin. But Cypress parents quickly rallied and demanded answers and action.

After a few harrowing days, the district announced it would step in and run the school. A week later, the district agreed to run the school for two years. That made Cypress the first new traditional school in Orleans Parish since Hurricane Katrina.

Acknowledging the school’s high population of students with special education needs, the district transferred its assistant director of exceptional children’s services, Laverne Fleming, to become Cypress’ executive director.

Read our earlier story: These schools are opening their arms to special education students. Can they afford it?

Cypress parent Jeremy Dewberry said parents are continuing to monitor the district’s management of the school.

“The parent group is dedicated to ensuring that our kids are getting the services that they need and that they were promised,” he said Thursday.

Dewberry said parents hadn’t heard anything about enrollment numbers.

“We haven’t heard anything negative or positive indicating that there’s going to be any cuts or any moves or anything of that nature,” he said.

The district did not respond to a request to clarify what parents could expect if the school has to revise its budget.

“At this time, the district is working to finalize its plan for under-enrollment at Cypress,” district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in an email late Thursday. “Those plans, once finalized, will be presented at the October board meeting.”

Of course, the adjustments may not be necessary if schools hit their enrollment numbers by Oct. 1. That date, and Feb. 1, are “count days” — the dates the state uses to determine student counts for funding purposes.

The district’s decision to halt enrollment at four charter schools that may close at the end of the school year could help the under-enrolled schools meet their targets by lowering competition in the city.

Student enrollment drives revenue

All schools face a delicate budgeting balance each year because they are funded on a per-pupil basis. This is particularly important to independent charter schools, which are operating on a much smaller scale and do not have the financial backing of a traditional school district.

In New Orleans, students rank schools in a central lottery system and no child has an assigned neighborhood school.

A 2015 study found 25 out of 30 school leaders surveyed reported engaging in some kind of marketing strategy in response to competition.

The second most common response to competition was offering unique programming and extra services. That kind of differentiation is an integral part of both Cypress and Noble Minds.

When Cypress opened in 2015, it reserved 20 percent of its seats for students at risk for a reading disability. The school quickly became known for working with students with disabilities. Cypress parents praised the school at parent meetings last spring and challenged the school board to keep it open.

Noble Minds takes a therapeutic approach to education, Triplett said, and offers students a social-emotional classes that teach them how to express and manage their feelings in a healthy, controlled way. Parents have also praised the school’s programming.

Targeting special populations

Both schools have a higher than average percentage of students who need special education services. And those services come with a price tag.  Many students with special education needs cost more to educate than the schools receive in public funding.

“Make no mistake about it, it’s a much more difficult situation, particularly when you’re dealing with a higher percentage of high-needs students than most schools,” Triplett said.

In May, Cypress parents begged Orleans Parish school district administrators not to let the school close. They said it would reinforce the idea that having a higher than average special education population wasn’t worth the budgetary trouble.

Triplett said things are even tougher for Noble Minds because the state-authorized school does not receive additional special-education money through the Orleans Parish funding formula.

She said the school has focused its cuts on supplies. She also said a number of administrative staff are now working few hours.

“We do need folks to step in and help. We need private foundations and individuals to step in and help,” Triplett said. “People who say this is important to them should know that it costs money, and we do not get enough from the federal [government] or the state to cover these services.”

Triplett said she expected enrollment challenges because it is a new school. It opened in 2017 on the West Bank, then moved to Carrollton this summer.

”We’re small and a lot of people just don’t know we’re here.”—Vera Triplett, Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning

Noble Minds is not the first school to struggle to fully enroll in early years. When Cypress opened in 2015, the school had to convert two of its kindergarten classes to first grade classes to attract enough students. Noble Minds opened as a kindergarten through second grade school last fall. They added third grade this school year.

At Wednesday’s Noble Mind’s board meeting, board members asked Triplett about marketing and how the school could recruit more students in the next 10 days. She offered an array of ideas, including setting up a table at Walmart.

As part of their professional development, Triplett said Noble Minds staffers will canvas the neighborhood on Friday to raise awareness of the school.

“We’re small and a lot of people just don’t know we’re here.”

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...