Mary D. Coghill Charter School supporters pack a November 2019 Orleans Parish School Board meeting where NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. recommended the charter school, along with Joseph A. Craig Charter School, not receive renewed contracts. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

After families and staff from two F-rated charter schools with unknown fates packed an Orleans Parish School Board meeting Thursday to make emotional appeals to stay open, Orleans Parish School Board President John Brown Sr. promised to carefully review NOLA Public Schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis’ recommendation not to renew the schools’ charters.

Mary D. Coghill Charter School and Joseph A. Craig Charter School each received an F rating from the state this fall in a critical high-stakes year for the charters — when their contracts are up for renewal. The NOLA Public Schools district requires charter schools to meet certain academic and operational standards to remain open. Lewis has recommended the two charters not be renewed. 

Craig attorney Tracie Washington praised Brown after the meeting for agreeing to hear from the public in what has largely become a behind-the-scenes decision, typically made by district administrators without board input.

Due to shifts in operation since the elected school board took back the state-run Recovery School District charters, the decision to not renew a charter now sits solely with the superintendent. In the past, these decisions were voted on by the board. 

That means the news of non-renewal is delivered in Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s report, as it was Thursday, and because it is not an action item, the public has no right to speak on the matter. 

However, the seven-member board can move to hold a vote on whether to veto his recommendations. Overriding the superintendent requires five votes. 

“John Brown committed, within 30 days, to reconvene this board to hear from the parents and vote on whether to reject this recommendation,” Washington said.

Brown said in an interview he would closely examine Lewis’ recommendations. Both schools are run by community-based charter groups that took over struggling Recovery School District schools as the RSD phased out direct-run schools. 

“It’s going to be an action item for next meeting,” Brown said in an interview after the meeting, noting he had one month left as president. “Whether or not it goes for a vote, is depending on whether board members will call for it.”

The district released a statement attributed to Lewis after the meeting.

“The ability to manage and operate a school is a privilege. As we progress as one district, we will work together to expand charters that are successful and make necessary changes for those that do not. Our students deserve an excellent education and we will never waiver in our commitment to ensure they attend schools that prepare them for success.”

The meeting was heated at times — literally — as a faulty air conditioning system struggled to cool the room packed with more than 100 people. Families, students, staff and community members interrupted board business in an attempt to speak publicly about the charters. 

Several minutes in to an outside group’s presentation, a call-and-response chant broke out among school supporters. 

“Not tonight! Not us! Not Tonight! Not us!” 

After the report, Brown decided to allow one representative from each school to speak. Coghill was up first.

As adults and students in purple shirts with gold lettering — Coghill’s school colors — flooded the front of the room, standing feet from board members, Coghill Head of School Rayven Calloway addressed the board.

Calloway said her board was “fully vested” in the community and that all of her board members are residents of the Gentilly Woods school’s surrounding neighborhoods. 

“They are the anchors and nurturers of this community,” she said. 

She praised the school’s teachers and asked the district to reconsider.

Earlier in the week, Coghill’s board chair, the Rev. Aubrey Watson, admitted the school had struggled with leadership, but argued that new leadership was improving on many issues the district has identified. Also this week, district staff said the school was continuing to have problems with its special education. 

After Calloway spoke she brought a student to the podium and at audience’s request, the board listened. 

“I love and care about Coghill,” the student said. “We love and empower each other at Coghill.” 

Then the students gathered at the front feet away from board members, recited their school’s pledge. 

The audience broke into applause, and Washington spoke up. 

“You are the new civil rights movement,” Washington said. “Education is a civil right!”

The group joined her in a chant as Coghill supporters filed out. Then, Rev. Willie Calhoun Jr. followed, pleading to allow the Friends of King Schools charter network to continue to operate Craig.

“This display that you just saw shows there is damage being done to these children by school closures,” Calhoun said. 

Another chant from the atrium broke out: “Save Coghill’s board!”

Calhoun concluded his remarks and asked the board to reconsider. 

“Friends of King let’s go,” Washington said as she and others left the room. “We’ve got a fight.”

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...