This NOLA Public Schools slide shows the seven charter schools up for contract renewal during the 2019-2020 school year. The superintendent will make his recommendations by the end of December, after state ratings are released this fall. Credit: NOLA Public Schools
Mary D. Coghill Charter School board meets in July 2019. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The NOLA Public Schools district this week warned Mary D. Coghill Charter School parents in a letter that the Better Choice Foundation — the nonprofit that has run Mary D. Coghill Charter School since 2013 — may not get a renewal on its charter with the district. 

The letter, signed by district Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr., says the possible non-renewal is due to the school’s academic performance, which, it says, “is anticipated to result in an ‘F’ letter grade” in upcoming state assessments. 

The move would close the school under its current operator. But according to the letter, in the event that the Better Choice charter isn’t renewed, the district plans to seek a new charter group to operate the site. 

“A new operator would be selected to operate the school for the 2020-2021 school year,” says the Sept. 16 letter from Lewis.

Coghill is up for renewal this fall, along with six other charter schools, because their charter contracts expires at the end of June 2020. Each must pass a series of academic, financial and operational evaluations to receive a new charter contract. 

The other six schools are Andrew H. Wilson Charter School, Foundation Preparatory Academy, Langston Hughes Academy, The NET, Joseph A. Craig Charter School, and George W. Carver Collegiate Academy. 

State letter grades are expected to be released in the coming months. Though the district anticipates that Coghill will be rated an F this year, it has not been considered failing in previous years. The school was rated a D in 2018 and 2017 and a C in 2016. In contrast, the three schools that were closed for failing academic performance last year all had F ratings for multiple years. 

But in many cases, the grade that matters is the one that schools receive during their renewal years. Several other F-rated schools, including Craig, were allowed to remain open this year because they were not up for renewal last year. 

Other schools up for renewal are likely in good shape

Leaders from other schools contacted by The Lens say they’re in good shape for renewals. 

Wilson, Carver, Foundation Prep and Langston Hughes all were rated C by the state in 2018. (State scores for 2018-19 generally aren’t released until October or November.) 

Jamar McKneely, the CEO of InspireNOLA Schools which runs Wilson, said the school has met all district requirements for renewal. He also estimated Wilson will earn a B or a C letter grade this fall. 

Megan Chauvin, the communications director of FirstLine Schools which runs Langston Hughes, said in an email that the school’s leadership doesn’t know its anticipated grade. But she said the district hasn’t contacted the school, as it had Coghill. 

Representatives of Carver and Foundation Prep did not respond to a request for comment. 

The NET, which is an alternative high school, was rated an F last year. Alternative schools — which take students who have been expelled from other schools — are measured on a different set of standards, and an F is not necessarily detrimental to a renewal application. 

“Based on our internal calculations, we’ve met or exceeded all components of our framework and fully expect to be renewed,” Elizabeth Ostberg, the CEO of The NET said in an email Tuesday. 

But for Coghill, where the district anticipates an F, and Craig, which received an F last year, an F in a renewal year will almost certainly mean their respective charter groups lose their contracts. 

Tracie Washington, a lawyer for Friends of King Schools, which runs Craig, said she was aware that a letter from the district has gone out to Craig parents. But she could not immediately provide details about what it said. 

According to state data, a lower percentage of Craig students achieved mastery or above — the state’s measure of proficiency — on standardized English and math exams last spring than did in the prior year. (Though those measures have been released publicly, the state’s overall ratings have yet to be released.)

Coghill warnings

State ratings are often the biggest determining factor in whether a charter is renewed, so it is not all that surprising that Coghill parents got a heads-up from the district. But the district has closed schools that were not considered failing academically because of financial concerns or failure to comply with state law or district policy. During the 2018-2019 school year, the district began the process of revoking D-rated Edgar P. Harney elementary school’s charter after numerous warnings about financial irregularities and inadequate special education services. Facing revocation, Harney’s charter group voted to surrender the school’s charter. The district took over Harney as a direct-run school in January, then closed it after the end of the school year. The building is now a “swing-space” currently occupied by Walter L. Cohen College Prep. 

Apart from its academic difficulties, Coghill has likewise received multiple district warnings over the past year, about financial problems, board governance issues and special education problems. Lewis reported the financial issues to Louisiana’s Legislative Auditor. 

Those compliance issues could make it difficult for the Better Choice Foundation to secure a renewal even if Coghill isn’t rated an F this year. 

One parent’s complaint about her daughter not receiving special education services resulted in an investigation that revealed eight students had also not received required services. Coghill must make up those services. The school also received some negative media attention after WDSU-TV reported on problems with its remediation program, Project Success.

Neither Rayven Calloway, Coghill’s school leader, nor Audrey Woods, the Better Choice Foundation board chairwoman, responded to a request for comment. 

Lewis typically recommends charter renewals to the Orleans Parish School Board at its November or December meeting. The board can overturn his recommendations with a two-thirds vote. 

Within the last year, the district began requiring charter schools to communicate their renewal status with families. The district also sends information to families. 

“Direct communications to families on the status of the renewal process were initiated last spring and additional information based upon recent test scores will be shared with families early next week,” said an emailed statement, sent by district Communications Director Tania Dall and attributed to the district. The district did not comment on the Coghill letter specifically. 

Next school year, 19 New Orleans charters, one-quarter of the district’s schools, will face renewal

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...