Rather than revoking the contracts of four F-rated charter schools, Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and his team are working with the schools to improve academics and operations through school-authored improvement plans.

This is Lewis’ first year running the newly unified Orleans Parish School district. Last summer, the district and the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board took back control of state-run Recovery School District charters. The district’s new charter school accountability framework allows Lewis to revoke F-rated schools’ contracts, closing them.

But Lewis can also give those schools an additional year to raise their grades by requiring them to develop and implement improvement plans.

Of the city’s 86 public schools, 11 received an F from the state in 2018 annual ratings. Those ratings are based largely on state standardized tests. Of the F schools, four are working under the school improvement plans, and three are closing this summer. The rest are alternative schools — often used for students who have been expelled from other schools — which are given more flexibility on state grades.

The four schools targeted for improvement, rather than immediate closure, are Robert Mussa Moton Charter School, Joseph A. Craig Charter School, James M. Singleton Charter School and Landry-Walker High School. Like most New Orleans schools, all four are charters. At the end of this school year, New Orleans is set to become the first major city without traditional, district-run schools.

If they don’t improve their letter grade, the schools — which had a combined enrollment of 2,148 students as of October — will automatically face closure proceedings next year. Schools that get an F two years in a row go through the district’s charter revocation process.

District leaders met with families at those schools in January and February to introduce them to the improvement plans, which were finalized late last year. The Lens obtained full copies of the plans through a public records request.

The plans were developed by school leaders based on the problems they believed were leading to their performance ratings. Craig’s plan identifies the students’ high-poverty rates and “unfair treatment” in admissions from the district’s centralized enrollment program, called OneApp as external problems beyond the staff’s control. It lists six bullet points as potential solutions to help boost state standardized test scores. Moton’s is more detailed, identifying more than a dozen weaknesses, solutions and expected outcomes.

Related: Class dismissed: How and when New Orleans schools close

One commonality in Landry-Walker, Moton and Craig’s improvement plans includes a switch to “Tier 1” curriculums, which the Louisiana Department of Education considers the highest quality.

The state rates subject-based curricula created by different companies based on its alignment to state standards. The state’s standards are tested yearly and schools receive their letter grades based on how well students perform.

During a three-year slide of test scores in New Orleans, one local charter leader feared autonomy and the cost of new curriculum could cause a delay in its implementation in charters. He said traditional districts were quicker in adopting new curriculums aligned with state standards.

Moton builds new leadership

Moton’s new Principal Terri Williams says the school was already at work identifying problems last school year after facing three years of declining school performance scores.

The eastern New Orleans school was also under scrutiny for failing to identify students with disabilities and provide them with the extra help required by law. The latter earned them a revocation hearing and an “intensive corrective action plan,” an action taken for specific policy violations, as opposed to the more general improvement plans. The district said Moton completed its intensive corrective action plan.

Williams said she was hired on shortly after CEO Paulette Bruno had to leave due to health problems in February 2018. The board rearranged leadership, Williams said, and Bruno is now the School Operations Officer.

Williams said an improvement plan for Moton was in place as of the beginning of this school year. Their plan identified problems with the 2017-18 school year and improvements for the 2018-19 school year.

”Moton understands its challenges and has been working diligently to address every one of them.”—Principal Terri Williams, Moton Charter School

Moton’s Transformation Plan was already in action 5 months before the district and state’s required meeting with the Superintendent in February,” Williams wrote in a statement provided to The Lens.

The school’s improvement plan states it increased staffing by 50 percent.

“Basic positions were not being filled because most seasoned employees provided extra services, even though the funds were already available through [state per-pupil funding] and federal grants,” Williams wrote.

“The increased staff includes support and enrichment personnel to provide the performance art and technology that the charter describes,” she wrote. “It also includes required staff for children with special needs.”

Williams said the school has a tight timeline for improvement because its charter contract will be reviewed in 2021.

“Moton understands its challenges and has been working diligently to address every one of them,” she wrote.

Treme school wins state money for improvements

Joseph A. Craig Charter School enrolls 329 students at its Treme campus. The school’s one-page plan states it will switch to a “Tier 1” curriculum, as the state recommends.

Craig was one of two Orleans Parish schools to receive money from the state’s School Redesign Grant. Craig, one of Friends of King charter network’s two schools, was awarded $27,736 of about $8.2 million handed out across the state.

”Test scores and poverty are intertwined, a fact that should always be considered in high poverty schools such as Joseph A. Craig.”—Joseph A. Craig Charter School improvement plan

“Test scores and poverty are intertwined, a fact that should always be considered in high poverty schools such as Joseph A. Craig,” the unsigned letter stated.

Of the four schools, only Craig is up for charter renewal next year. Last fall, the district halted enrollment at the three F schools up for charter renewal and another it expected to close. Students can still enroll at Craig for this fall, a district official confirmed.

The Orleans Parish School Board did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Singleton’s plan focuses on teaching strategies

Over at James M. Singleton Charter school in Central City, staff are also working to execute their improvement plan, CEO Doug Evans said. Evans heads the Dryades YMCA which holds Singleton’s charter contract, a unique arrangement in the city.

“The most important element to focus on is student growth,” Evans wrote in a statement provided to The Lens.

Evans came on board after Singleton’s CEO stepped down and four school employees were fired due to systemic testing irregularities in early 2018. The state later dropped the school’s official 2017 letter grade from a C to a D.

”The most important element to focus on is student growth.”—Doug Evans, Singleton Charter School

Singleton’s improvement plan includes specific suggestions to teachers to actively monitor students, such as not re-teaching individual students during a lesson.

“The teacher should be understanding and sympathetic to those who do not understand but should NOT stop to teach a student who has made an error,” the plan states. “If the teacher re-teaches students individually, students will learn that they don’t have to pay attention in class during instruction because the teacher will help them individually

However, it reads, “If three or more students have the same error, the teacher should immediately stop the class and provide a whole-group correction.”

A high school with a history

Landry-Walker High School rounds out the group of four. It is a storied controversial combination of two West Bank rival high schools: O. Perry Walker High School and L.B. Landry High School.  The two schools combined in 2013, merging Walker’s highly-regarded B-rated program with F-graded Landry’s new $56 million facility.

In 2013, the newly created charter high school received a B letter grade and a 10-year charter contract. But the next year, its test scores were so high the group launched an internal investigation that eventually revealed major discrepancies between classroom performance and state standardized test performance. Eventually, that information was sent to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Landry-Walker has been on a multi-year slide since the investigation. Its 2014 B letter grade dropped to a D the next three years and eventually an F in 2018.

Landry-Walker’s improvement plan includes rehiring school staff at all of its schools, something the network had already announced. The Algiers Charter network runs four schools including Landry-Walker. Two of those schools, that are in the final year of their charter contracts, are closing for failing performance.

Algiers Charter did not respond to a request for comment.

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...