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McDonogh 35 alumni board fears charter group takeover

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Earlier this year, McDonogh 35 alumni and parents protested Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s decision to halt admissions to the school.

With an announcement about the fate of McDonogh 35 Senior High School on the horizon this week, the school’s alumni association’s board is urging the Orleans Parish School Board not to turn it into a charter school.

Gertrude Ivory, the president of the McDonogh 35 Alumni Association board, released a statement Monday, asking the district to keep the historic high school under its control.

“We want to remain a direct-run school,” Ivory said in an interview. “We are not in favor of giving our school to a management operator.”

McDonogh 35, the first public high school for African-Americans in New Orleans, was highly regarded for decades. But it has struggled academically since Katrina. Over the past few years, the school district has tried several times to privatize McDonogh 35, which is now its lone remaining direct-run high school.

Those included soliciting outside management groups, a failed attempt by principals and central  office staff to create their own charter network that would include McDonogh 35 and a “non-charter contract” proposed by the district.

The last iteration of the district’s attempt to privatize McDonogh 35 was announced in February as a two-part plan to shut-down and restart the school. The vague plan was met with criticism from alumni and parents.

The district rejected the lone group that applied and opted to take some time to decide what to do with the school in the long-run. In the meantime, the district proceeded with the phase out part of its two-part plan — this school year McDonogh 35 didn’t accept new ninth-graders and it did not accept transfer students.

But the school district has continued to plan to transition the school to private management. In a unique school district, one that’s made up almost exclusively of charter schools, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has said his role is to authorize and regulate schools, not run them directly.

The district’s two-part plan is expected to be announced Thursday. That includes a contract operator to phase-out current students and news about a “ninth grade academy” operator.

The district has approved a transition fund for the school as its enrollment dwindles. A group that submitted a proposal inquired about how that money would be transferred.

The deadline for organizations to apply to phase-out the school was Monday at 2 p.m. The district did not respond to a records request on Monday afternoon for those applications.

Ivory said alumni have met with representatives from two local charter networks: KIPP New Orleans and InspireNOLA.

Both organizations have applied to “replicate” their high schools. Charter replication is reserved for high-performing schools and moves faster than a normal charter application. Lewis supports them. The school board has until Thursday to override his recommendation.

InspireNOLA’s CEO Jamar McNeely said he’s applied to both phase-out McDonogh 35 and replicate a high school at its new Cadillac Street site. Earlier today, he said he was still considering whether to apply for the short-term contract.

At 2 p.m., KIPP’s spokesman Jonathan Bertsch confirmed the network had been in contact with the district and alumni about McDonogh. But he said, “KIPP New Orleans Schools will not be replicating a high school at McDonogh 35.”

McNeely said he read the alumni board statement and respects their position.

“I think we need to move the conversation away from district or charter to what is best for students,” he said.

He said the district “has stated numerous times that they might not have the ability to bring the school to the level it needs to be.”

Lewis has said students at the D-rated high school deserve better and that was part of his motivation for the restart plan. McNeely said he wants to be seen as an ally.

“If this is the best decision, we are there as an ally to support the students,” he said of Lewis’ plans.

McNeely said he would provide Advanced Placement classes for current McDonogh 35 students and work to help them achieve high ACT scores.

Ivory’s group plans to show up to the Orleans Parish School Board’s Thursday meeting. Its committees meet Tuesday afternoon.

“Should they make a decision to give our school to a charter organization we won’t be happy,” she said.

A statement on the alumni association’s site called for more people to attend Thursday.

“Pawning all schools off to charter management organizations is unacceptable,” it stated. “Our school district does not have to be an all-charter district.”

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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.