With Wednesday’s closure of Crescent Leadership Academy, an alternative charter school for students in 7th grade and older, the city now lacks an alternative setting for 7th and 8th grade students.

Like the city’s other alternative programs, Crescent Leadership was used to educate students who had been expelled from other schools.

The West Bank school’s 66 students, the vast majority of whom are in high school, have all received a new placement, Orleans Parish school district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in an email this week.

But achieving that means the district is taking a new approach to dealing with middle school students who have been expelled from other schools.  Instead of placement in an alternative school, they’ll be sent to traditional elementary schools. City schools have slowly shifted to a K-8 model, phasing out middle schools.

“As of now all middle school students that are expelled and removed will receive a placement in a new school in the same manner that expelled K-6 students do,” Ellis wrote.

Some of the high school students were allowed to end their expulsions early and are returning to a traditional school. Students who did not have their expulsions lifted early enrolled in one of the district’s two alternative high school programs: The NET and ReNEW Accelerated High School.

The NET enrolled between 15 and 20 Crescent Leadership students, Executive Director Elizabeth Ostberg said. ReNEW did not respond to a request for comment.

Low enrollment can cause budget problems

In a written statement provided to The Lens, Crescent Leadership Academy Board President Warren Atkins said the school was forced to close.

“Within recent years, the school was required to operate under an expulsion-only school model, which led to a significant decline in the school’s population,” he wrote.

During the 2013-14 school year, the school enrolled 234 students. This fall, the district said they had 66 students. But Ski Broman, the CEO of Rite of Passage, the company that the board contracted to managed the school, said the school had about 35 students.

Rite of Passage is an education programming provider based in Nevada. The group runs several schools. Broman said Crescent Leadership Academy was heavily subsidized through private dollars. A company associated with Broman owns the former private school where Crescent Leadership was housed.

“We couldn’t make it happen without choice kids,” Broman said, referring to students who would chose to attend the school through OneApp.

Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn confirmed the Recovery School District changed the school’s enrollment guidelines in 2014 or 2015.

That move “followed an administrative decision based on the state’s oversight and the Academy’s performance,” Dunn wrote in an email.

The school has struggled with enrollment and funding for years. School leaders said in the past that was due in part to how the Recovery School District funded alternative schools.

The expulsion-only model was even trickier to navigate.

“The CLA Board recognized that this was not a sustainable model, yet was committed to educating at-risk students and keeping the school open,” Atkins wrote.

Crescent Leadership Academy transferred from the state-run Recovery School District to local control this summer with dozens of other schools as the state’s takeover in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ended.

Atkins said the charter group sought assistance from the Orleans Parish school district.

“The Board was disappointed when this assistance was not provided, and the limitations of the expulsion-only model was not altered,” Atkins wrote.

In board meeting minutes, Crescent Leadership Academy staffers suggested an employee at the district’s centralized enrollment office was steering students away from the school.

Told about the allegation, Ellis responded, “There is no basis in this allegation and we have found no evidence to support this claim.”

The low enrollment and ability to take in only students who’d been expelled forced the board to make a tough decision, Atkins wrote.

“Based on all these factors, the Board recognized it could no longer provide quality education to the students who need it the most,” Atkins said.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. called the board’s decision to close mid-year “unacceptable.”

Crescent Leadership Academy isn’t the only charter school that serves a special population to face enrollment-related budget concerns this year.

Cypress Academy is a Mid-City elementary charter school serving a higher than average population of special education students. In May, days before the end of the school year, its charter board announced it would close its doors for good citing budget concerns. Cypress parents organized and the district agreed to run the school for two years.

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...