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With expected privatization of McDonogh 35, New Orleans is poised to become an all-charter city

As the Orleans Parish School Board considers a contract on Thursday that would give McDonogh 35 Senior High School to local charter group InspireNOLA, New Orleans is poised to become the first major city in the country with no traditional, direct-run public schools.

“My goal is to bring McDonogh 35 back into its premiere position as an academically successful, first-tier high school and this is the best step forward,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a Thursday statement.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. speaks to parents and faculty at McDonogh 35 Senior High School in 2017 during an earlier attempt to hand over the school to an outside operator.

The all-charter story has turned into somewhat of an annual traditional. Prior to Hurricane Katrina the city had a handful of charter schools. After the storm the state-run Recovery School District took over failing schools and either closed or converted all of them to charters. Of the schools remaining under district control, several converted to charters because it allowed them to reopen quickly. This summer, the last of the RSD’s schools returned to district oversight, giving the district control of a majority of the city’s schools for the first time in more than a decade.

The current board and Lewis have embraced the “portfolio system” of private contract management.

Each of the last three years, the same has been poised to happen, but each time, charter groups have withdrawn applications to run schools, or district officials have decided to change course. The annual ebb and flow of charters doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Still, the number of direct-run schools has dwindled each year.

The city is already nearly all-charter, currently running just two schools directly: McDonogh 35 and Cypress Academy. Come January, the district will acquire a third when it takes control of Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy. Harney and Cypress are scheduled to close at the end of the school year.

McDonogh 35, the first public high school for African-Americans in New Orleans, was highly regarded for decades, with a list of alumni that includes Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the city’s first black mayor, and New Orleans Police Department Chief Michael Harrison. But its state standardized test scores have been on the decline for years, which Lewis said was a major part of his decision.

The historic high school is already in the process of shutting down. The school stopped accepting new students this school year. That is part one of a two-part plan — the latter of which is also expected to be announced Thursday night — a new high school at the site.

The only applicant to apply for the short-term operator contract was InspireNOLA, a local charter network. Lewis has recommended they get the contract, and the school board will vote on the agreement at its Thursday night meeting. The short-term operator is expected to complete the phase-out, ending its term in two years.

Earlier this week, the alumni association’s board expressed concern about a charter operator taking over the school, though some alumni have expressed support for the district’s plans. The district has tried to privatize the school for several years.

The second part of the plan, a new charter school at the McDonogh 35 site, is expected to be announced Thursday night as well. Alumni association board president Gertrude Ivory said Monday that alumni had met with two charter groups: KIPP New Orleans and InspireNOLA. But earlier this week, a KIPP spokesman said the organization would not run at high school at McDonogh 35.

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McNeely said his group has applied to open a high school at the site. He’s using the district’s charter replication process, a mechanism reserved for high-performing schools.

The district has said it would announce a long-term charter operator for the site on Thursday night. That charter school would start with a class of ninth graders next year and add an additional grade every year after that.

In addition to McDonogh 35, the district runs Cypress Academy. Cypress was an unexpected addition to the district last summer.

The school came back under the district’s wing after its independent board feared a financial shortfall and surrendered its charter. The district initially pledged to operate Cypress for two years, but Lewis later announced that it will close this spring.

In January, the district will acquire Harney. The district plans to close Harney at the end of the school year due to its noncompliance with state laws and district policies. A week after announcing the closure, Lewis said he would seek to revoke Harney’s charter in the middle of this school year.

Earlier this month, Harney’s charter board surrendered its charter, allowing the district to take control next month. That means hiring a new slate of teachers, whose jobs will only last through the spring when the school closes.

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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.