Before it closed, Cypress Academy was one of the schools selected for targeted monitoring. The school was well-known for enrolling a high percentage of special education students and logged the highest number of per-student special education service minutes the year it was targeted. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

On a Friday afternoon in January, a few parents and two ministers gathered at Medard Nelson Charter School at the corner of St. Bernard Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard hoping there was something they could do to keep the school open past May. They were meeting with State Rep. Joe Bouie, a well-known critic of New Orleans’ use of charter schools.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Michelle Blouin-Williams walked into the Parent Teacher Organization meeting, which was being held in Nelson’s library. Blouin-Williams is the CEO of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, a nonprofit charter school network that runs Nelson and two other schools in New Orleans.

This is the second part in a series on school closures. Read part one: Class dismissed: How and when New Orleans schools close and part three: OneApp

With the school set to close in a few months, the Rev. Lionel Davis Sr., pastor of Pentecost Baptist Church, asked her what she would be doing next year.

“I’m the CEO of all the schools,” she said. “So I’m still the CEO of the other schools.”

Her answer seemed to take Davis by surprise. As students and teachers were searching for new schools and new jobs, the charter management group’s central office staff will likely remain largely intact. It will still operate two other schools. Blouin-Williams declined an interview request for this story, saying in a brief statement that her attention is focused on “supporting our children and their families to a successful academic year during this transition.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. New Orleans is well-known for being a heavy adopter of the model and is poised to become the first major city in the nation without any traditional, district-run schools. Two of its three direct-run schools will close this summer, and the third will be passed to a private contractor.

Charter schools operate autonomously, making their own decisions on things like staffing, budgeting and their holiday calendars. That independence comes with yearly reviews from the district on their academic, fiscal and operational health. The district can intervene if the organization is not holding up its end of its contract. Interventions can include things like warning letters, mandated academic improvement plans and, finally, if a school fails to improve, closure.

But it’s not always clear which schools will close and which will remain open.

Based largely on state standardized test scores, Nelson has been rated an F school by the Louisiana Department of Education for the last four years. The Orleans Parish school district has decided to close it and two other F-rated schools — McDonogh 32 Charter School and William J. Fischer Academy — this year.

”These children are being displaced. And they have to start all over.”

Michael Jones, Sr., Nelson Charter School parent

Two more, Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy and Cypress Academy, were not considered failing. But after being recently taken over by the district from their former charter operators, they will also close this year.

At the same time, another four charters with F ratings will remain open. They submitted improvement plans in December.

Unlike the four F-rated schools targeted for improvement, Nelson, Fischer and McDonogh 32 are all in the final year of their charter contracts, when they face heightened scrutiny from district officials during the renewal process.

The threat of school closure is a key part of the accountability system in New Orleans’ charter-based education model. It’s a yearly ritual that sends hundreds of students, teachers and support staff scrambling to find new schools.

But some parents and advocates from a group called Erase The Board who spoke to The Lens questioned why the closing schools couldn’t be put on improvement plans, too. Erase The Board is a group aiming to unseat current members of the Orleans Parish School Board, the elected body that oversees the school district. The group wants the district to help failing schools, not close them.

The Orleans Parish school district did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.

Annual shuffle for some teachers and students

Michael Jones, Sr. wanted his son to graduate from Nelson like his older son had years earlier. His seventh grader, Mike’kel, is finishing the year at Nelson, and will have to find a new school for eighth grade before moving again for high school in 2020.

“When they told the parents about this, it was already done,” he said. “To have to sit down with my son and explain that we have to find another school for you to go to, for one year, that is devastating.”

Jones’ younger son has been at Nelson, which enrolled 261 students as of October, since he started pre-kindergarten classes. Now, he needs to find a new school.

“These children are being displaced,” he said. “And they have to start all over.”

Cypress Academy parent Paul Matyas Jr. feels similarly. His 7-year-old son Paul is being forced from the C-rated school.

Paul Matyas Jr. walks his 7-year-old son Paul into C-rated Cypress Academy. The small school in Mid-City is one of five Orleans Parish schools the district is closing this year. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Cypress was a charter school until last summer. The district took it over after its nonprofit governing board abruptly announced last May that the school would not reopen for the 2018-2019 year, due to an anticipated budget shortfall.

The district initially pledged to run the school directly for two years. But Orleans Parish school district Superintendent Henderson Lewis, who has made it known that he is not interested in running schools directly, later walked that promise back, announcing in November that it would close at the end of this school year. Its students would be transferred to Foundation Preparatory Academy, a charter school.

“All the parents are very unhappy about it,” Matyas said.

Cypress has a higher-than-average percentage of students with disabilities. When it first opened, the school marketed itself to students with dyslexia, and it also became known for its work with students who have autism.

“This school is a great bridge for them,” Matyas said.

Matyas hopes his son can attend Hynes Charter School next year, but getting a seat at the highly sought after A-rated school can be tough. He’s also a little concerned about the size of the school. Hynes enrolls 711 students compared to Cypress’ 188 students.

“I think another year here would have been beneficial,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jones is hoping his son will be able to attend a school close to Nelson, like Langston Hughes Academy, in the nearby Fairgrounds neighborhood.

He also noted that while the district is closing Nelson, it’s not actually shutting down the building. Foundation Prep, which is currently located about a mile and a half away on Esplanade Avenue, is moving in.

“Why would you close this school and give the building to another school?” he asked.

Foundation Prep won’t be an option for Mike’kel because — unlike Nelson, which is pre-K through eighth grade — it only offers pre-K through fifth grade.

Nelson students and students at other closing schools will receive “priority” status in OneApp, the district’s centralized admissions lottery. But Jones still worries some of the students will go to failing schools. And this time they could be farther from home.

According to a district analysis, there is an excess of open seats in elementary schools for the approximately 980 students in closing schools.  Only 362 of those open seats are in highly rated A and B schools.  There are an additional 1,289 open seats in C-rated schools. The remainder — 2,503 open seats — are in schools rated D, F and new schools that have not yet been rated by the state.

Experts, like Education Research Alliance Director Doug Harris, have found that closing schools can be good for students with one big caveat: They must end up in a better school.

“If you close the very lowest performing school by definition, they have to go to better schools, because every school is better than that school,” Harris said.

“It’s the difference between the school you’re taking over and the one they’re going to that really matters,” Harris said.

Teachers face unique problems in New Orleans

Closing schools creates job insecurity for teachers, parent and Erase The Board advocate Ashana Bigard said, citing concerns that experienced teachers left the city for nearby districts. Most charter school teachers work on annual contracts, receiving renewal letters for the following school year in late spring.

“If you had consistency and knew your school wasn’t going to close, then you’re going to get the veteran teachers to come out to some of these schools,” she said.

That’s a concern for Cypress Academy teacher Eric Corcoran, who said with the closure announcement and recent leadership changes that it’s been a “very wild ride” at the Mid-City school this year, his first at the school. He teaches fourth-grade math and science at Cypress.

“When I started working in August, it was our understanding that Orleans Parish was going to control the school for two years and transition the school back to a charter environment,” he said. But in the fall, the district announced Cypress would close at the end of the school year.

The school is on its second principal since that announcement, its third since the beginning of the school year.

“It became a very intense and uncomfortable environment,” he said. “There was a moment that people thought terminations were going to start happening left and right. That didn’t happen.”

Cypress teachers thought they may get hired on at Foundation Prep, Corcoran said. He didn’t apply there, but he said he believed several other Cypress teachers did. He knows of only one who’s been hired there.

”I’m going to the charter teacher job fair on Saturday. I’m going to the InspireNOLA job fair on the 23rd. I’m looking into out-of-parish, like Jefferson and St. Bernard Parish, to see what my best options are.”

Eric Corcoran, Cypress Academy teacher

Corcoran is looking for a middle- or high-school job next year.

“I have phone interviews twice this week,” he said. “I’m going to the charter teacher job fair on Saturday. I’m going to the InspireNOLA job fair on the 23rd. I’m looking into out-of-parish, like Jefferson and St. Bernard Parish, to see what my best options are.”

“It’s an uneasy moment to not have that stability,” he said.

Without job security, even the most devoted teachers may think about future employment. And some leave mid-school year. Students may start to transfer out, and when they leave, their state funding follows. The district granted “hardship” OneApp priority status to all current Harney students who want to transfer in the middle of this year, before the school closes.

Corcoran said he knows of two staff members* and one student that have left Cypress since the closure announcement.

While Harris, the researcher, said the disruption created by closures can be good for students if they end up in a better school, he acknowledged it can be a problem for teachers.

“It is disruptive and has some side effects of creating more uncertainty for educators about their jobs when they already have a lot of uncertainty about that because they don’t have the union protections or tenure anymore,” Harris said.

“So not only can they be fired as an individual, they can be fired as a group, which is something I think that makes it harder to attract teachers and keep them here with so much uncertainty about their jobs.”

In the most extreme situations, a mid-year closure for example, teachers can be left without a job at a time of year when most schools aren’t looking for large numbers of employees. In December, teachers at Edgar P. Harney Elementary School were forced to reapply for their jobs to be able to finish out this school year after the district forced Harney’s nonprofit operator to give up its charter contract.

New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit organization, offered stipends to encourage Harney teachers to finish out the year, this year. But it’s unclear just how many do stay on until the summer comes and they pay them out.

”Not only can they be fired as an individual, they can be fired as a group, which is something I think that makes it harder to attract teachers and keep them here with so much uncertainty about their jobs.”

Doug Harris, Education Research Alliance for New Orleans

As resources dwindle, teachers spend a final year inside a school that will no longer exist. They prepare students to take what are normally high-stakes state exams, but those stakes will be lower for schools slated for closure. The state releases school scores in the fall via a spreadsheet with thousands of schools in the state on it — on a separate tab are the grades of “closed schools.”

The Lens asked Harris if academic performance declined in a school’s final year. He said he hadn’t studied the matter but offered a few guesses.

“It wouldn’t be at all surprising just because teachers are obviously looking for jobs and who’s most likely to get a job, the better teachers are likely to get the better jobs,” he said. “If the better teachers leave that’s going to pull the scores down. And especially if a decision is made in the middle of the school year that really leaves the school in a lurch. It’s very hard to find a good teacher in a closing school in the middle of a school. You’re in a bad spot at that point.”

“It would be shocking if the scores didn’t drop off,” he said, assuming teachers and students may leave mid-year for better opportunities.

Mahalia Jackson Elementary School was a C school when closure talk started in 2017. Harney was also a C school going into the 2018-2019 school year when the district began cracking down on it for failing to comply with state and district policies. Both dropped to D’s the year before they closed. Jackson finished an F. Harney’s spring test results won’t be released until the fall.

Harris thinks those who leave a school set to close are likely to be the higher performers.

“So you’re leaving the lowest-performing students with the lowest-performing teachers in the school,” he said. “If you’re going to go with the closure and takeover model, I’m not sure there’s really a good solution to that problem.”

Schools are neighbors, too

At the Nelson parent meeting in January, Davis, the pastor, wanted to know more about the school’s future.

“Is there ever the possibility of Nelson coming back? As a named school?” he asked Blouin-Williams, the charter network CEO.

There was no straight answer.

Davis remarked about how many of Nelson’s students were members of his church, which is nearby. And even those that weren’t members were around for other programming there. He said the church has been a proud neighbor of the school.

“That pride also leaves out of the community,” Davis said.

Charter schools in New Orleans transfer buildings often. Part of that is due to $1.8 billion in post-Katrina repairs and new construction, which is still ongoing. One of the other main reasons is to school closures.

”Only a handful of schools have ever been closed in the U.S. because of No Child Left Behind. And that’s in the whole country.”

Doug Harris, Education Research Alliance for New Orleans

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act forced school districts across the country to pay more attention to struggling schools. But Harris said the accountability measures contained in the federal law are much weaker than what we see in New Orleans.

“Only a handful of schools have ever been closed in the U.S. because of No Child Left Behind,” Harris said. “And that’s in the whole country.”

“Probably more schools have closed in New Orleans alone, than have closed in the rest of the United States for performance reasons from No Child Left Behind.”

*Correction: This story originally reported Cypress Academy teacher Eric Corcoran saying that two teachers have recently left the school. In fact, Corcoran said two staff members have recently left Cypress. Only one of them was a teacher.

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...