Orleans Parish school district Superintendent talks to Cypress Academy parent Ryan Fitzpatrick about the decision to close the school and transfer its students to Foundation Preparatory Academy. "They did not make a decision to serve our kids," Fitzpatrick said of the district's move. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

For the second time this year, Cypress Academy families packed into the small school’s cafeteria to learn its fate: The school will close at the end of this school year, Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. announced Monday night. Students will automatically be enrolled at Foundation Preparatory Academy, a nearby charter school.

Earlier on Monday, the district confirmed that Lewis recommended four other schools for closure due to poor performance and mismanagement.

The Cypress announcement came only six months after the school district promised to run the school directly for two years. Monday’s decision means that as of next school year, the district will no longer run any elementary schools directly.

“It’s very important we don’t keep our families in limbo and get to a point of providing stability,” Lewis told families about his decision to close Cypress.

But parents in the crowd weren’t happy. That’s a line they felt they’d heard before.

”It’s very important we don’t keep our families in limbo and get to a point of providing stability.”—Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr., Orleans Parish school district

Last spring, just days before the school year ended, parents learned the Cypress charter group planned to close for good. The meetings were heated as parents struggled to cope with the loss of a school designed for students with reading disabilities.

But then the district agreed to run the school directly until the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Parents said if the district gave up on Cypress, it would discourage charter operators from trying to serve special education students, whose needs are often costlier than other students.

At Monday night’s meeting, with children playing games on cell phones and others army-crawling through cafeteria chairs, Lewis said the promise that the district made in May was the right decision at the time.

“At that moment that was the right thing to do. I will say today, that’s not how I feel,” he said. “We have information now that we didn’t have then.”

He said the loss of one of the school’s leaders and other factors led him to search for a charter group to take on Cypress’ students. Cypress is one of just two schools the district runs directly, rather than using a charter operator. The district is phasing out the other one, McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

It’s unclear if the Orleans Parish School Board must vote to approve the decision. The last time the district closed a direct-run school, the board voted to do so. A district spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about the process.

After the school district’s pledge, Cypress parents were surprised when officials began introducing prospective charter groups this fall.

In a letter to parents last week, Chief of Schools Rene’ Lewis-Carter already knew the questions parents would have: “You may be asking, ‘Why now?’ And, ‘Why have we decided not to run the school for the 2019-20 school year as we initially committed?’”

Parents had several questions about how Foundation Prep was selected. Initially four charter groups were interested, Lewis said. But two — The Querencia School and Morris Jeff Community School — withdrew their interest, he said. That left him to choose between Foundation Prep and Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning.

Cypress and Foundation Prep, which both have a literacy focus, have a similar history. Both have remained relatively small schools since opening in 2015. They failed to attract enough kindergarten students in their first year and had to unexpectedly add first grade. Cypress’ board voted to close the school last spring due to expected budget problems.

As for selecting Foundation Prep over Noble Minds, Lewis said the school was better suited to accept Cypress students because it uses the district’s special education services. Noble Minds is a state-authorized charter school. Foundation Prep is an Orleans Parish authorized charter and the district collects an authorizer fee for such schools.

Lewis asked Laverne Fleming — who moved from the district’s central office to run Cypress when the district announced it would run the school — to explain. Parents rallied around Fleming, who has decades of experience, when she took the position.

“That program was designed by me,” Fleming said of Foundation Prep’s special education services, which operate in coordination the district. “That is the one school and the only school I have confidence in to continue to develop our program.”

Foundation Prep serves about 150 students and is about a mile from Cypress in Mid-City. But it initially opened with intentions of serving eastern New Orleans and is supposed to be assigned to a building there. One parent asked about that.

“At our school board meeting on Thursday I’ll be making a recommendation for the siting of Foundation Prep,” Lewis said, noting the school had applied to stay at the McDonogh 28 building on Esplanade Ave.

“So they might be moving?” One parent called out. “We don’t even know where this is going to be?”

Lewis reiterated that that decision would be announced Thursday.

When schools close, and a student loses their seat, they get priority placement in the city’s centralized enrollment lottery, called OneApp.

“You will get a guaranteed seat at Foundation Prep,” Lewis told parents. “If you apply for a school other than Foundation Prep, you will be given closing school priority in the lottery system.”

Lewis noted Foundation Prep had a higher 2018 performance score when scores were released last week. Both schools earned C’s. Cypress had 62.9 points while Foundation Prep had a 66.4.

”They made a decision to serve their needs and get it off their plates.They did not make a decision to serve our kids.”—Ryan Fitzmorris, Cypress parent

Tensions were high throughout the meeting. Parents asked how to hold Lewis accountable and others asked him to explain how he would help students who have changed schools multiple times.

“You are sidestepping like a politician,” one parent yelled.

“Did you make this decision for my son or to benefit Foundation Prep?” another parent asked.

At one point, a parent stood up and took the floor.

“Who in this room believes this is the right thing for their children?” she asked. Then, after surveying the room, she said “Nobody raised their hand.”

District leaders spread out across the room to take individual questions from parents, a tactic they use to end many school closure meetings.

After the meeting, parent Jeremy Dewberry, said, “Cypress is the needle in the haystack.”

“It achieved higher scores than many of the charter schools that will be staying open,” he said, noting Cypress’ higher than average special education population.

“They made a decision to serve their needs and get it off their plates,” Ryan Fitzmorris, whose son attends kindergarten at Cypress, said after the meeting. “They did not make a decision to serve our kids.”

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...