It’s that time of year — the annual dance of New Orleans charter schools as those with expiring contracts seek new ones and families and school staff await word on their fate. This school year, 18 charter schools that answer to the NOLA Public Schools district are up for renewal for the 2021-2022 school year, and district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is expected to announce whether they’ll stay open, close or be given to another charter group next week.
The 18 schools represent nearly one-quarter of the district. Five of them recently have had academic performance ratings so low that district officials are completing a more in-depth analysis of them in a “comprehensive review” process wrapping up now.
Lewis’ word next week on renewals or closures will be final unless five of the seven Orleans Parish School Board members — a supermajority — vote to overturn his recommendations at their next board meeting.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated annual charter renewals because schools did not receive new school performance scores from the state this fall. That’s because Gov. John Bel Edwards shuttered school buildings in March amid rising COVID-19 cases, and they stayed closed through the end of the school year, forcing the cancellation of state standardized tests.
Standardized tests make up the largest portion of the A-F letter grades the state assigns schools and the NOLA Public School district relies heavily on that information when determining which charters to renew and how long their new contracts should be.
Education Research Alliance for New Orleans Director Doug Harris said it will be difficult to hold schools accountable by traditional measures this year.
“It’s obvious, you can’t easily judge schools based on what happened this year,” Harris said. “The decision really needs to be made based on what was happening in the past or give them an extra year.”
The district will base its decisions on 2018-19 letter grades and growth scores, along with annual school site reviews, finances and for five schools, a less-common comprehensive review. That process includes additional qualitative measures of the school.
And that’s not such a bad thing, Harris said.
The five schools facing comprehensive review — Schaumburg Elementary, Robert Russa Moton, Phillis Wheatley, SciTech Academy and Crocker College Prep — had D or F letter grades along with a D or F ‘School Performance Renewal Index’ as calculated by the district in 2018-2019. The district has completed the review process there, which included staff interviews, parent and staff surveys, a meeting with parents detailing a school improvement plan and an analysis of the school’s federal and state funding.
“I think the parent survey is actually — and to some degree the staff survey — are some good indicators of what’s going on. You can’t measure student data but you can measure how well schools responded to (the pandemic) in a parent’s eye,” Harris said.
“If they’re saying the school did a great job … provided a computer, moved teaching online and did all these things that you think a school should do — I think that’s the information that can help break a tie,” he said.
“I think those evaluations are really valuable information and really rounds out information of what’s happening in a school,” he said. “The test score data are telling you a narrow slice of what we want schools to do.”
In an early 2018 study, Harris and a fellow researcher released a study that showed schools react to what they’re evaluated on. The study was aptly titled “What gets measured gets done.”
That was the same year the state began to include student growth, which measures a student’s progress year over year, in its state-issued letter grades.
Harris, who has long advocated for the growth score to be counted, reiterated that point in a Tuesday interview.
“I’ve made the case many times that they shouldn’t be shutting down high growth schools,” Harris said. “In theory you can have an F school that is a C growth school. You’ve got students that are learning a lot but just not catching completely up in time.”
The five schools undergoing more in-depth reviews are the ones most in danger of losing their charters. If that happens, that could mean the school would close or another charter group or the district would come in to run the school. Each had a D or F state rating and D or F ‘SPRI’ from the district in the 2018-19 school year. And while all had an F rating when it came to student assessment portion of their state rating, they also all had a B or C student growth rating from the state that year.
The School Performance Renewal Index is an index created by the district. It factors in previous years of school letter grades and, for charters seeking longer contracts, also includes re-enrollment rates and progress of certain subgroups of students. That, combined with a school’s performance letter grade from the state determines whether the charter is renewed and for how long.
New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit group that works with the city’s charter schools, supported the change. Policy Director Holly Reid said her organization was consulted while the district developed the policy.
“We believe that the process did engage in a policy that is fair given the unprecedented challenges of this year,” Reid said during the September meeting.
Orleans Parish School Board member Grisela Jackson, who was appointed to a vacant seat in June, was wary of any turnover this year. “The thought of closing schools and bringing in new operators during a pandemic is frightening to me.”
Two of the low-performing schools — Schaumburg Elementary and SciTech Academy — are overseen by the ReNEW Schools charter network. SciTech had a D in 2018-19 while Schaumburg had an F state letter grade. The ReNEW network quickly expanded its footprint in the city in the early 2010s when the state-run Recovery School District was converting New Orleans schools into charters. However, it has shrunk over the last several years from six in 2017 to three this school year. The network has expanded its role in early childhood education at the same time.
Robert Russa Moton Charter School in New Orleans East earned a D in 2019. As recently as 2015, it had a B rating before dropping to an F the following year. The 2019 score of a D resulted from an F in student exams and a C in student growth.
Harris also argued trajectory was a good way to evaluate schools this year lacking new state data.
“I think with the schools that were not on a strong trajectory to begin with, then going with the past data in the prior years makes sense,” Harris said, noting he wasn’t commenting on any school in particular.
For a school on a strong trajectory, but without quite enough data they could make an exception to their traditional renewal system matrix system.
“They can apply the policy of the exception,” he said. “I don’t think it makes them look soft in any way. I think it makes them look sensible.”
In 2019, Phillis Wheatley had a D letter grade. That consisted of an F in assessment, or state standardized tests, and a B in student growth.
That year, Lawrence Crocker College Prep received an F. It had an F in state exams and a C in student growth.
Harris, who noted that he was not advocating for any school in particular, argued that if you close high growth schools, students could end up at a lower performing school.
“These are schools where students are learning at least pretty well … and there’s a reasonable chance that if you close a school like that that students end up in a worse school,” he said.
“Growth should be the primary consideration,” he said. “You don’t want to close schools where students are learning at really high rates no matter what the letter grade says.”
Of the total 18 schools up for renewal, three — all selective admission charters — were granted automatic renewals because they received A letter grades in 2018-2019. They are Benjamin Franklin High School, Lake Forest Elementary Charter School and Lusher Charter School.
The additional 10 schools are: Arthur Ashe Charter School, Homer A. Plessy Community School, KIPP Believe, Booker T. Washington High School, KIPP Central City, KIPP Morial, Livingston Collegiate Academy, Mildred Osborne Charter School, Morris Jeff Community School, and Paul Habans Elementary.
All of those schools received a C in the 2019 school ratings, with the exception of Washington and Osborne, which earned D’s.
NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. will present his renewal recommendations to the Orleans Parish School Board at a special meeting Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.