Post-school closure meal handouts at Paul Habans Charter School last month. Habans is up for a charter renewal next school year. The CEO of the network that runs the school said it’s important to hear from the state soon about how the NOLA Public Schools District should evaluate charters. (Marta Jewson/TheLens)

Every year, schools are always eerily silent in New Orleans during this part of April. But it’s usually not because they are closed. Typically thousands of students throughout the city would be feverishly typing away, completing the state’s annual standardized exams. 

The state-required exams are particularly important in New Orleans because they are the biggest factor in school letter grades, which the all-charter NOLA Public Schools district uses to decide which schools remain open and which ones close. This year, due to extended school closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the exams are not happening and schools will not receive letter grades this fall. 

With nearly one-quarter of the city’s public schools nearing the final year of their charter contract, that leaves a big question for the district. How will it decide which charter schools to renew come December? 

In an emailed statement, the district said it “is currently determining the way in which we will move forward with the scheduled renewal cycle for 2020-2021.” District officials did not answer questions about what other performance or qualitative metrics they may take into account. 

Some education advocates think policy changes need to happen now, so schools can plan ahead for next school year.

Patrick Dobard, the former superintendent of the Recovery School District and current CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, said Louisiana’s law on charter renewal isn’t flexible enough to accommodate the current situation. 

“The law only allows for a non-renewal or a three-to-ten-year renewal,” he said in an interview last week. “Those options don’t quite make sense right now.”

“We believe there needs to be an option for charter schools to either take renewal based on their 2019 letter grades or receive a one year extension to their contract,” he said. “The challenge is that under current charter law this is impossible.”

He’s looking to the Louisiana Department of Education and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for solutions, which could come in the form of a waiver. He praised their handling of the crisis thus far. 

“I have no doubt that the changes will be thoughtful and fair,” he said. 

But, he said, state leaders need to start working on them now. 

“When we talk specifically about charter accountability, I’m not aware right now of conversations around that,” he said. “It does concern me if they’re not happening.”

Kate Mehok, the CEO of Crescent City Schools said her group is also looking to the state and BESE and suggested a similar idea. The three-school charter network has one school, Paul Habans Charter School, up for renewal in the fall. Habans earned a C rating from the state in the 2018-19 school year.

“It’s important that we hear guidance soon so we can ensure we can plan for the future and parents have the most accurate information,” she wrote in an email. 

“One possible suggestion could be to allow authorizers to use 2019 letter and growth grades for those schools who would have met renewal criteria so those schools can plan, while granting a one year extension to those charters who would have not met renewal standards so they can continue to work to improve.”

School grade waivers already in place, though effect on New Orleans charter decisions unclear

After significant flooding in the Baton Rouge area in 2016, several school districts had to close temporarily and many school buildings required significant repairs, some never reopened. As a result, students, who may have also been displaced by flooding, missed significant class time. Fearing a hit to school scores BESE granted affected schools a one-year waiver and for accountability purposes, schools went off the letter grade they’d earned the prior school year. 

With schools closed for the remainder of the school year, Gov. John Bel Edwards has granted a similar waiver this year, as many states have done across the country, state spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said.

“Per this policy, when schools are closed for 18 or more days due to a disaster, they receive a one year ‘disaster’ waiver and shall not have school performance scores or letter grades published for the year of the waiver,” Dunn wrote. “This policy has been used when schools were closed for 18 or more days after hurricanes or flooding. In addition to BESE policy, the USDE waived all report card requirements related to assessment and accountability results for one year.”

In addition to letter grades, the state also identifies schools as requiring two types of intervention. The first is Comprehensive Intervention Required, which is based on overall school performance scores and/or graduation rates. The second is Urgent Intervention Required, which is based on subgroup performance and discipline.

Schools that fall into either of those categories “will remain identified as such through 2020-2021,” Dunn wrote.

“School report cards that were published in 2019 will remain available to the public for informational purposes,” she wrote. “The Department will support school system planning in the coming year by providing diagnostic information based on all data that are available.” 

But that doesn’t provide specific guidance for New Orleans’ high-stakes all-charter district, which prides itself on closing schools that aren’t performing. With a year of data absent, that could be hard to do in the coming years. 

“It’s really urgent that the Department of Education, if they’re not, need to begin working with the local authorizers on this sooner rather than later,” Dobard said.

But he also emphasized that whatever solution was reached, he thought districts, like NOLA Public Schools, should still be able to make renewal decisions themselves. In New Orleans, the superintendent decides whether charter schools are renewed.

“There is a lot of uncertainty around what school will look like next year,” Dobard said. “If you get a good policy in place and a flexible policy in place then once we know what the lay of the land is we won’t have to backtrack.”

Even giving schools a one-year pass wouldn’t solve all accountability problems. School letter grades are partially based on an improvement score component. That’s calculated with year-over-year test score comparisons so the state will have to find solutions for calculating the grades for years to come. 

“We need to maintain an accountability system next year as much as possible,” Dobard said. “Even if SPS and letter grades are given to schools and just for informational purposes.”

Holly Reid, the chief of policy and portfolio at NSNO, also said it is especially important for schools to know how charter renewals will be handled so they can budget accordingly. Even though schools have unique funding protection in Louisiana, budget implications seem likely to affect all aspects of life. 

The shutdown has also affected the district’s ability to review high school student files, which it began last fall after the graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School. Asked about the second round of reviews that were supposed to occur this spring, the district provided the following statement.

“During this time, NOLA-PS is focused on providing guidance and support to schools with regard to awarding credit to high school students given the uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Round two audits have not yet been rescheduled and the process will most likely be modified to adapt to the current reality. The district is considering options to evaluate credit accumulation, provide feedback to schools and to review promotional decisions while continuing to respect the Governor’s stay-at-home order.  This work is ongoing.”

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...