Mary D. Coghill Charter School board meets in July 2019. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Fifteen former Mary D. Coghill Charter School employees and the president of United Teachers of New Orleans are calling for the nonprofit group that runs Coghill to hand in its charter and for the NOLA Public Schools district to take over daily operations immediately. 

The F-rated Gentilly Woods charter school — run by the Better Choice Foundation — is slated to transfer to district control this summer when its charter contract expires. But a five-page letter from former staff says the change needs to happen sooner. The letter alleges a hostile work environment, disruptive staff turnover and reassignments, and states students with behavior issues are kept in a classroom called “the box,” sometimes causing them to miss out on special education services. 

In an email, Coghill Head of School Rayven Calloway said the “allegations are false and defamatory,” saying that the school has recently made financial and academic improvements. 

Addressing the allegation about “the box,” she added, “Special education students, like all students, learn in classrooms. Any assertion to the contrary is unfounded.”

In a one-page letter accompanying the letter from the former Coghill educators, Wanda Richard, President of United Teachers of New Orleans, called for the group to turn in its charter. The letter was sent to both NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and Better Choice Foundation board president Audrey Woods. 

“While previous school years have been challenging, this school year has seen a heightened level of instability, including 34 staff members being terminated or leaving,” Richard wrote. That represents slightly less than one-third of total staff members employed at the school, according to state records from October.  “It is clear that Coghill students and staff have been placed in a state of perpetual crisis.”

“We believe that students’ social, emotional, and academic well-being should be at the core of all decisions any school makes,” she wrote. “That is why we believe it is imperative for the Better Choice Foundation to relinquish Coghill to NOLA Public Schools and transfer all remaining funds to NOLAPS control effective immediately for the safety, well-being and educational efficacy of Coghill students.”

The letters, sent Monday, come amid a court battle between the charter group, Better Choice Foundation, and school district contesting that very topic — who should run the school. The lawsuit focuses on a December Orleans Parish School Board vote that fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority required to overturn Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s recommendation not to renew the nonprofit’s charter contract. One board member was absent for the vote. And the group contends that because four board members of six who were present voted against Lewis, the board met the threshold. 

The district maintains that their argument is “flawed.” State law requires two-thirds of the full membership of the board to vote to overturn Lewis’ recommendation. 

The Gentilly Woods elementary school enrolled 541 students as of last fall, according to an official state count. 

Financial concerns, questionable reimbursements to a board member and special education shortcomings have plagued the school over the last year. The district issued several warnings to Coghill and when word of the school’s F rating from the state came in the fall, it all but sealed the fate of the charter school because its contract was up for renewal. Academic performance largely determines whether charters remain open. 

Lewis at first announced the school would stay open under new leadership, but no charter groups qualified to run it. Instead, Lewis later told families, the district will operate Coghill again for the 2020-2021 school year. 

But current staff and administrators are left to run the closing charter schools for the remainder of their contracts. While many staff are devoted to students, some may choose to leave in search of job security. 

At Coghill, however, the former staff members’ letter says staff turnover has been an issue since the beginning of the year due to a hostile 

“A hostile work environment creates a high level of teacher and staff turn over- creating

instability for students,” the letter states. “It further undermines teachers’ professional capability to deliver the highest quality of instruction to students.”

According to the letter, since the beginning of the year, “34 teachers/staff members have been terminated or made a conscious decision to leave.”

“Most of the 19-20 school year has been an unacceptable misuse of instructional time and learner development due to the instructionally unsound practices and hostile environment created by administration,” the teachers’ letter says

Calloway acknowledged the turnover in her email, stating the school was making an academic turnaround. “An unfortunate reality in terms of achieving those goals was the need to release personnel, who were not contributing to that successful turnaround.”

The employees also wrote that the administration had asked teachers to bring students’ F grades up to C’s within eight weeks. Last school year, the district cited the charter group after one of its board members directed staff not to give F’s.

“Coghill students and staff have been placed in a state of perpetual crisis by the leadership of the Better Choice Foundation,” the educators wrote.

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...