Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep is one of two schools run by New Orleans College Prep.

Crocker College Prep will not receive a new charter contract, NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told Orleans Parish School Board members at a meeting Tuesday night.

Eighteen charter contracts, representing nearly one-quarter of the district’s schools, were up for a renewal. Of those, Crocker, which is run by the New Orleans College Prep charter network, was the only one to be denied.

The news was being passed on to staff and families Tuesday evening, New Orleans College Prep CEO Joel Castro told The Lens in an interview. Lewis said the school will be taken over by a new charter operator. 

Castro criticized the process, saying the district had “shifted the goal posts” and that his charter group had not received reasoning in writing as to why the school was being shuttered. A district presentation Tuesday night stated NOCP did not have good financial standing, among other performance metrics, but at a Monday evening meeting of NOCP’s board of directors, Castro maintained the school had a fund balance equal to 20 percent of its annual budget, well above the district’s goal for schools. Lewis’ characterization of its financial situation “had to be a colossal error because that is not the case,” Castro said. 

In the district’s presentation Tuesday, Crocker fell at the bottom of nearly every academic measurement. However, Castro argued that in his two-years as CEO of the charter group, Crocker implemented a new more rigorous curriculum that was a big adjustment for students and teachers and that they’ve still seen student growth. That was apparently not enough to convince district officials.

“This data tells a story. There was one school here, that was Crocker, that was last in every one of these categories.” district Accountability Officer Kevin George said. 

Then Lewis announced his recommendations — renewals for all 17 schools except Crocker. 

“We’re completely shocked and I mean that sincerely. I can’t believe they would close us in the middle of a worldwide pandemic,” Castro said. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards shut schools down last March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.The governor ultimately decided to keep them closed through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. As a result, students were unable to take standardized tests, and the state did not release its annual performance scores for the year.

Part of the decision, then, had to rely on Crocker’s 2018-2019 performance data. Castro said using old performance data  — which George used in his presentation —  was “a tremendous slap in the face, a disservice to our children.”

The district also reviewed additional qualitative data for Crocker and four other schools with low academic performance. But Castro questioned that process as well. 

Since New Orleans schools returned to local control in 2018 — after years in which most of the city’s schools were under state oversight through the Recovery School District — charter contracts in the city are managed almost unilaterally by the appointed superintendent and his administration, not the elected school board. The board has the ability to override his decisions about whether to close schools only with a supermajority.

“As the authorizer we have a great responsibility to regulate and evaluate the performance of our schools,” Lewis said. “Charter renewal is a critical part of this process.”

Because it lacked new performance data, the district completed expanded “comprehensive reviews” on five schools, including Crocker, that included staff surveys and additional qualitative information. Based on that information, Lewis recommended that Crocker not get a new contract. The other four schools in danger of losing their charters based on academic data each received three-year contracts. They are: Phillis Wheatley Community School, Robert R. Moton Charter School, Schaumburg Elementary and SciTech Academy.

Interim board member Grisela Jackson, who ran for her OPSB seat but failed to make the run-off election after the Nov. 3 primary, disagreed with Lewis. She congratulated the other schools but challenged his decision on Crocker. 

“I do not agree with the superintendent on the closure of Crocker,” Jackson said after taking a personal point of privilege. Jackson helped reopen Crocker after Hurricane Katrina and served on its charter board for years. 

“I did not see any of the data that was presented by any of the comprehensive review schools at the October meeting. I don’t see how that would not be taken into account as part of the whole process. And the fact that Crocker has a 20 percent fund balance, and no findings in their audit to my knowledge and a stable consistent board of directors. And showing it is making headway academically. I respectfully disagree with the superintendent.”

But members of the public weren’t able to object on Tuesday. Even though they are usually final decisions, involving millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of students, Lewis’ renewal recommendations are considered informational, not “action items.” They are not followed by a vote and so do not require the board to ask for public comment. The virus has further cut public participation. Tuesday’s meeting, the most highly anticipated evening of the year for charter schools seeking renewal — as well as the staff and families that fill them — was held virtually. 

Three A-rated selective-admissions schools — Benjamin Franklin High School, Lake Forest Elementary Charter School and Lusher Charter School — were eligible for automatic renewals and received 10-year contracts. 

“The A schools can’t just receive an A,” George, the director of accountability,  said. “They must also show high growth in low-income students and maintain high re-enrollment as well.”

Ten additional schools received 5-year renewal contracts. They are: Arthur Ashe Charter School, Homer A. Plessy Community School, KIPP: Believe College, KIPP: Booker T. Washington High School, KIPP: Central City, KIPP: Morial, Livingston Collegiate, Mildred Osborne Charter School, Morris Jeff Community School and Paul B. Habans Elementary.

The board can still seek to overturn any of Lewis’ recommendations at its Dec. 17 board meeting. Last year, the board failed to overturn two of Lewis’ recommendations for closure. 

Virtual Discipline Policy 

The school board also approved a virtual discipline policy Tuesday night. It’s a requirement prompted by a new state law after a 9-year-old boy in Jefferson Parish was suspended for handling a BB gun during virtual learning. The Jefferson Parish school district is challenging the law. 

Education advocate Betty DiMarco criticized the policy because it does not include charter schools. In New Orleans, that means it applies to two schools at most — Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, which is direct-run, and McDonogh 35’s upper grades, a so-called “contract school” managed by InspireNOLA as it converts the school to a charter. All other schools in the district are charters. 

“I’m concerned that we aren’t going to be reaching the majority of the schools with any discipline review because they are not run by Orleans Parish,” DiMarco said.

Former Recovery School District employee Lona Edwards Hankins wanted clarification on who was included in the review panel being assembled. Hankins questioned how certain members were placed on the panel, including an employee of a private bus company, and what position they held. 

She also questioned the district’s definition of which children should be considered “district” students.

“At the beginning of the meeting, you recognized the young people who lead the Pledge (of Allegiance) as NOLA Public Schools students,” she said, noting the students attended a charter school. “But there are no charter members on this committee.”

She said she also wanted to see a way parents and public could access this information, noting that, for example, citywide charter school CEO meetings are not technically public and therefore not open to the public. 

Former school board candidate Kayonna Armstrong, who lost in Saturday’s election, also wanted to know how charter schools would be reviewed.

Board member Grisela Jackson commended all the questions asked in the comments and asked district administrators to answer them. “I had the same questions.”

Board attorney Sharonda Williams explained that the district need only create a policy for direct-run schools. Currently, the district runs one school — Coghill — and it is set to be taken over by a charter group next year. 

“We’re citing a specific statue that does not apply to charter schools,” Williams said. “The law is written this way it does not allow for the inclusion or require or mandate the inclusion of charters in this provision.”

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...