Alex Lafargue and his son, Alongkoin, at Medard Nelson Elementary, where Alongkoin goes to school. Nelson is one of five New Orleans public schools slated for closure this spring. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

For more than a decade, most public schools in New Orleans were overseen by state bureaucrats, 80 miles away in Baton Rouge. That changed last summer, when a state law passed in 2016 took the majority of the city’s schools back from the state-run Recovery School District to the locally elected school board — and its superintendent, Henderson Lewis, Jr. — for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

It is a different district than the one the Orleans Parish School Board ran before the storm.  Nearly every school in the city is now a publicly funded, privately run charter school. This summer, New Orleans is slated to become the first major city in the country without any traditional, district-run charter schools. And Lewis has more power than superintendents from earlier eras. Under the 2016 law, he can now decide without Orleans Parish School Board approval, to close schools considered troubled or failing, barring a supermajority veto vote from the seven-member board. In November, he decided that five New Orleans schools  would close this spring.

This is the first part in a series on school closures. Read part two: Class Dismissed: The final year in a closing school and part three: OneApp

As of the state’s fall enrollment count, 1,127 students were enrolled in those five schools.

Two district-run schools — Harney elementary and Cypress Academy — were recently taken over from their charter boards due to financial and governance problems. They are slated to close this spring.

Another, the historic McDonogh 35 Senior High School — which opened in 1917 as Louisiana’s first public high school for black students — will continue to operate. But it will be “phased out” after being passed from district to contractor control this summer. The contractor is also opening a charter school there this fall.

”Closure is a very difficult and unpleasant decision that is part of the landscape in New Orleans. It’s part of what it means to be a charter school.”

Caroline Roemer, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools

The three remaining schools set for closure are all charters. They were returned from the Recovery School District last summer and are considered academically failing. Three have been rated F by the state for three years in a row or more, based largely on student performance in state standardized tests. Lewis decided not to renew their charter contracts, effectively closing them.

“It’s hard to explain to your child why they have the F rating,” Alex Lafargue said. His nine-year-old son, Alongkoin Lafargue, attends Medard Nelson Elementary School, which was rated F for the fourth year in a row in 2018.

“He said, ‘Well dad, I’m not an F student’,” Lafargue recalled his third-grader saying. “I said, ‘My friend, I love you. You’re not’.”

Lafargue is not happy that a handful of testing days determined the fate of his son’s school.

Closing a school because it’s not meeting academic standards may seem like an extreme measure. But it’s baked into the New Orleans school model. Education reform advocates say schools need to be held accountable for academic performance. While the district now requires failing schools to develop improvement plans, it doesn’t have direct control over day-to-day operations — like hiring or test preparation — at independent charter schools.

They do have the power to decide which schools will stay open and which will close.

“Closure is a very difficult and unpleasant decision that is part of the landscape in New Orleans,” said Caroline Roemer, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a pro-charter organization. “It’s part of what it means to be a charter school.”

Charter school proponents say this model has led to a post-Katrina turnaround. The Education Research Alliance found the overhaul of the city’s schools increased achievement and high school graduation rates. A 2018 poll found a majority of respondents thought charter schools had improved education in New Orleans.

But this high-stakes, market-based approach to public education can be a disruptive process for the city’s 45,000 students, their parents and educators. It has resulted in a revolving door of education providers — mainly nonprofits operating charter schools — and a yearly scattering of students and teachers from closing schools.

The latest group of planned closures, and the conversion of McDonogh 35 to a charter, has caused some pushback.

Louisiana State Rep. Joe Bouie, a New Orleans Democrat, is well-known for his criticism of a system he says has gone well beyond its intentions. He is quick to point out the state law that allowed charter schools to open includes language that describes their role as an “experiment” which traditional public schools can then draw from. Bouie is against closing schools unless there is an immediate danger to children.

“The only thing we’re doing is displacing students,” he said. “We don’t realize how much havoc we are causing for the students and the parents.”

Bouie admits that there are successful charters in the city. He said the school district should take note of what’s working in those schools to help improve failing schools.

“Let’s replicate and duplicate them and start doing what works there at some of these failing schools,” he said.

Closure versus Intervention

Lewis toured the city last fall, informing parents at five elementary schools their doors would not be open next school year. Cypress Academy parents were angry that the district backed out of an earlier commitment to run the school directly through the 2019-2020 school year.

“They made a decision to serve their needs and get it off their plates. They did not make a decision to serve our kids,” Cypress parent Ryan Fitzmorris said after a contentious meeting in the fall.

Harney parents questioned why their school needed to close since many of the school’s problems could be traced to its charter board, which no longer runs the school.

Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis talks with Cypress Academy parent Ryan Fitzmorris in November. “They made a decision to serve their needs and get it off their plates,” Fitzmorris told The Lens. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

An Orleans Parish School Board meeting in November — when Lewis announced his closure decisions — was repeatedly interrupted by angry outbursts from parents and community members pleading with the board to intervene.

“After tonight, please don’t close or charter any other school. If you’ve got a problem with administration, run the school. Don’t close the school,” one meeting attendee said to board members.

The board accepted Lewis’ closure recommendations.

The moves have also prompted a new “Erase the Board” coalition, which, like earlier “Erase the Board” campaigns in New Orleans in the 1990s, aims to remove sitting Orleans Parish School Board members in the next election.

Ashana Bigard is a public school parent, advocate, and member of the new Erase the Board coalition. She thinks schools close too often in New Orleans.

“They should only intervene at F schools if they’re going to help them improve,” she said.

She questions when closure decisions are made, and when they’re not. There are 11 F schools in New Orleans. Some have had that rating for several years. But only three of them are set for closure.

“You’re saying you’re closing failing schools. But then some of the schools you’re closing are not failing,” Bigard said. “There has never been any consistency.”

”We don’t realize how much havoc we are causing for the students and the parents.”

State Rep. Joe Bouie

The three F-rated charter schools set to close — Nelson, McDonogh 32 Elementary and Fischer Academy — have all been considered failing for at least three years. The letter grade meant they didn’t meet the district’s charter renewal standards. So when their contracts run out this summer, they will close.

Advocates, including Bigard, say the district should support schools — not close them. Many education reform proponents agree, though they debate the level of intervention. However, they also say closure can’t be ruled out.

“If you don’t do what do you committed to do, your consequence is you lose the privilege,” Roemer said. “I believe in that.”

Closing the lowest-performing schools in the city can be good for the students who attend them with one big caveat — they must attend a better school the following year. That’s according to research from Education Research Alliance Director Doug Harris and his team.

“The flip side of it is you have to have a better school to send them to — it’s the difference between the school you’re taking over and the one they’re going to that really matters,” Harris said.

But Roemer also said charter authorizers are working to identify problems earlier on, rather than swooping in and closing schools. When schools do struggle, the circumstances are usually unique, Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban said.

“I think closure is a strategy, a necessary strategy,” Kleban said. But, he said, it shouldn’t be the only strategy. “We can’t be a one-trick pony of school reform. That has to be one of many types of intervention that we utilize.”

Since Nelson, McDonogh 32 and Fischer have been struggling for several years, The Lens asked Harris if the district should have intervened earlier. He said determining the length of a charter contract is a balance.

“I think you want to have it long enough so that schools have a chance to show one way or the other how they’ll end up in the long-term but you don’t want it to be so long that students end up suffering,” Harris said.

”I think closure is a strategy, a necessary strategy. We can’t be a one-trick pony of school reform. That has to be one of many types of intervention that we utilize.”

Ben Kleban, Orleans Parish School Board

He also said policy makers can’t ignore how the high-stakes system shapes the city.

“It’s not just closure/takeover, it’s the threat of closure or takeover that is important here, because most of the schools will never have that happen to them. But they are so driven by it.”

There are eight other schools in New Orleans that received F’s this year and will remain open. Four of those are alternative schools, often used to place students who have been expelled from other schools. Those are not typically targeted for charter revocation.

As for the other four, rather than revoking their charters, Lewis is working with the schools to develop academic improvement plans. There’s one big difference between those schools and the F’s that are closing — the closing ones were in the final year of their charter contracts.

Bigard said it was “hypocritical” to close some F-rated schools while others remain open and receive improvement plans.

“In this city, living right now, are people who can put those things together,” she said of the plans. “But for the children in Harney, Nelson and [McDonogh] 32, I would help put together that improvement plan tomorrow.”

Orleans Parish School District officials did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Authorizer and regulator

Closures are never easy, former Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said in an interview with The Lens, but the process has evolved over the last decade in New Orleans.

“I think it only should be after the district has utilized every resource to find out if there is a way to improve the situation,” Dobard said.

But the RSD didn’t do that often.

“We took the mind set, in the past, that it wasn’t the role of the authorizer or regulator to provide recommendations,” Dobard said of his time with the Recovery School District.

Dobard now heads New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that supports schools and often helps the district. This year, for example, they are giving stipends to teachers at Harney who lost their jobs midyear to encourage them to finish the school year there.

He thinks the Orleans Parish school district is in a position to offer charter schools more help. They could even create an office for it, he suggested.

“It would have to be an opt-in,” he said. “I don’t think it’s wise at this point to make things mandatory.”

That belief reflects a central tenet of the charter movement — autonomy. Charters have the freedom to make many school-level decisions, such as choosing curriculum, hiring staff, and setting their own calendars. That’s why charter contracts have the high-stakes measurements. Then, depending on how they perform, they can receive another contract or shutter.

”I think it only should be after the district has utilized every resource to find out if there is a way to improve the situation.”

Patrick Dobard, former superintendent of the Recovery School District

The Orleans Parish school district has largely embraced the charter-based model. District officials have made it known that they aren’t interested in running schools, saying they should act as an authorizer and regulator for charters. It now has three direct-run schools. If everything goes to plan, by the time students return from summer break in August, it won’t have any.

For years, the district has tried to privatize McDonogh 35. No charter applicants were successful and a principal-led charter effort failed in 2017. Last spring, the district offered a two-part plan to phase out the high school and replace it with a contractor who would start a new school with the same name and mascot. The district did not find a suitable contractor but started the phase-out plan and halted admission. Then in the fall, the district put out a new call for an operator.  In December, Lewis announced that charter network InspireNOLA would simultaneously phase out the existing school over several years and start a new charter high school in its place.

Cypress Academy, one of the charters the district took over this school year, was designed for students with reading disabilities. It became so well-known for its programs that its special education population soared.

Special education students need additional services, which can be costly, especially for standalone charter schools, like Cypress, that do not share expenses with a citywide school district or a large charter network. The school became too expensive for its charter group and the district took it over. Now the district is operating it with roughly a $890,000 deficit and decided to close it a year earlier than promised.

The district is sending Cypress students to another charter, Foundation Preparatory Academy next school year. That group will move into the Nelson building this fall as Nelson students, like Lafargue’s son, scatter across the city. Students in closing schools receive priority in the district’s enrollment lottery.

The district also took over Edgar Harney elementary school in January after forcing its charter operator to give up their contract for failing to follow state law and district policy. It will close at the end of the year.

Changes Afoot

Despite the district’s desire to remove itself from direct school operations, Orleans school officials have lately taken some steps toward centralization. Now, with 78 schools under its authority, the district created the Office of Equity and Accountability and started requiring board member training.

And in his first year overseeing the majority of city schools, Lewis halted enrollment at four charter schools he didn’t think would be open next school year. That had never happened before. (It was also the district’s first year controlling OneApp, the centralized enrollment system.)

“It’s hard to explain to your child why they have the “F” rating,” Alex Lafargue, pictured with his son Alongkoin, told The Lens. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

After the news became public, a district spokeswoman said the district “will not allow additional seats to be filled at schools that are in danger of losing their charter due to poor academic performance or that have several issues of non-compliance.”

The admissions override was a surprise to Roemer, a champion of charter autonomy, who said the district lacks a policy on the matter. She said her group spoke with Lewis about it.

“Frankly, I’m concerned,” Roemer said. “I don’t understand exactly what powers exist with the authorizer to makes those types of decisions when I can’t see the policy right now.”

“I’m open to that it may be necessary, but I think we have more work to do around it so everyone is clear when it happens.”

Lewis’ decision raised another question about closing schools: when should the public find out.

When Lewis’ decision to halt enrollment went into effect in September it essentially served as a public announcement that those schools would be closing.

But the official word on the closures didn’t come until state ratings were released in November. Even then, Lewis’ recommendation to close the schools wasn’t final until December because the board has one month to override his decision.

We asked Dobard about timing. He recalled his days at the Recovery School District where he said announcing school closures “covered the gamut.”

“I think December, from New Orleans’ context, is about the right time,” Dobard said. “I think anything before that you run the risk of low morale for longer than what’s necessary.”

The district is communicating with parents in failing schools, which could face closure if they don’t improve. Central office staff held parent meetings at the four F charter schools that are remaining open next year, a district employee told board members this week.

They’ve also been more upfront with parents about which schools are up for charter renewal in a given year. That information is now included on the OneApp.

As for Lafargue, he’s focusing on finding a new school for his son next year just like hundreds of other parents. He’s filled out the OneApp, which is due Friday, and is hoping for his top school selection: IDEA, a charter school from a national network that’s new to the city.

He’ll find out where his son will attend fourth grade when lottery results come back in April.

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...