NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens) Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Six NOLA Public Schools charter schools that have not met charter contract renewal standards made their case to remain open before the Orleans Parish School Board and Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. at a public hearing Wednesday afternoon.

“The purpose of today’s hearing is to allow schools to present data and information to support their request to renew their contract,” Interim Chief School Accountability Officer Litouri Smith said. “The six schools presenting today are all in the final year of their contract, however they do not qualify for automatic renewal.”

Five of the schools — Arise Academy, Einstein Charter School at Sherwood Forest, Fannie C. Williams Charter School, Harriet Tubman Charter School and James M. Singleton Charter School — are in this position because NOLA Public Schools officials determined that they did not meet the academic, operational and financial requirements for an automatic contract renewal.

One other school, Elan Academy, may face an easier path to renewal than the others. It appears to be on the list of schools facing closure only because it has never had a state performance rating. OPSB President Ethan Ashley characterized its inclusion at the meeting as a “technicality.” 

The review is part of the process by which district officials will decide which schools at the end of their multi-year charter agreements should be renewed and which ones should not. Typically, the decision is based in large part on schools’ most recent state ratings — letter grades issued by the state Department of Education — which are highly dependent on standardized test results. 

The tests are taken in the spring, and the letter grades are issued in the fall. But the state hasn’t finished calculating new letter grades, based on the 2020-2021 school year, yet. Those are due next month. And state testing was cancelled in spring 2020 because schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That means the 2018-19 school year letter grade — a large factor in charter renewals — is the latest available. 

So this year, the district will conduct a “comprehensive review” of each campus, taking input from staff and families as well, to decide whether they should remain open. Though there are no new letter grades, students went back to taking standardized tests last school year, and schools have testing data from Spring 2021, which will also be taken into consideration.

The comprehensive review process allows the superintendent to take additional factors into account, “including but not limited to academic outcomes across a variety of student populations, enrollment, organizational leadership, and financial and organizational compliance,” Smith explained.

Over the next month, the schools must host two school improvement meetings and the district will host its own meetings for parents at each campus. At the Nov. 16 Orleans Parish School Board meeting, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. will make his recommendation on the contract renewals. 

Lewis holds a power unique from any other school district in the state — his recommendation on charter renewals stands unless two-thirds of the seven-member school board votes to override him. That has only been attempted once, and the board failed to gain enough votes.

At the Wednesday meeting, each school’s leadership team had 10 minutes to make a presentation to the board followed by board member questions and public comment. 

Arise Academy

Arise Academy on St. Claude Avenue received an F from the state in the 2018-19 school year. State letter grades are largely calculated based on two scores, an assessment score taken directly from student performance on state tests, and a “growth score” which measures how students improved year over year. Arise had an F in assessment and a B in growth that year, which led to an overall grade of F.

“ARISE Academy’s LEAP performance for the last two testing cycles is unacceptable. I could spend time on why this may be, but I recognize that may come off as giving excuses and I’d much rather focus on the school improvement plan,” Arise CEO Jolene Galpin said. “We are treating this year as an internal turnaround. What we need now is time to see this plan through for the students.”

Galpin, who came on in March, said the school has restructured its leadership team over the past six months. She said the school’s plan focuses on three things: creating a joyful environment for students, kindergarten through second grade literacy and team teaching.

“We know our K-2 scholars were hit the hardest [by the pandemic] and that K-2 literacy is a gap we have to attend to.”

Galpin said the school has a professional development program in place to train all teachers in literacy instruction and also have leadership roles overseeing K-2 literacy as well. 

Asked by OPSB President Ethan Ashley whether their plan was sustainable, Galpin said they’ve budgeted for two years and are able to use some federal pandemic funding to offset the costs of the program. 

Asked by board member Nolan Marshall Jr., how the school creates a “joyful environment,” new school principal Nichole Jones fielded the question. 

“Understanding that students have not been in our building for a long time — creating a safe space for them. They may have struggled a bit virtually or struggled before,” she said. “But making sure they know every adult in the building is building a relationship with them. Joy is something you can’t just produce, it has to come from the heart.”

Einstein Charter School at Sherwood Forest

Einstein Charter School at Sherwood Forest received a D in the 2018-19 school year. The school had an F in assessment and a B in growth that year, which led to an overall grade of a D.

In addition to being damaged in the February 2017 tornado that hit eastern New Orleans, Einstein has had three CEOs in the last three years, CEO Ashely Daniels said. Daniels was previously the principal at the Sherwood Forest site. Daniels said half of the school’s students received top growth on state tests this spring.

Roughly 20 percent of the students at Sherwood Forest are English Learners, meaning they are entitled to additional resources both inside the classroom and outside of it. Daniels spent time explaining how those services work, including pulling out students for individual lessons.

“You as a general teacher are also obligated to use ELL strategies,” she explained.

Daniels also addressed the school’s so-called “Level 2 non-compliance” warning issued by the district after the school failed to administer the state’s fifth-grade social studies exam in 2019.

“That definitely being clearly a large mistake, based on an uniformed miscommunication to team members,” Daniels said. “We have hired a district testing coordinator in addition to campus level coordinators. We are working to repair, rebuild and sustain valuable relationships with NOLA-PS.”

Daniels also assured board member Olin Parker that the school’s governing board was stable and working with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Four members of the public spoke in favor of renewing the school’s charter, including Kimberly Savoy, a Sherwood Forest parent and teacher who praised the school.

Elan Academy

Elan Academy did not receive a state letter grade in the 2018-19 school year, the most recent performance scores for the other schools facing closure. The small school opened for the 2017-18 school year with kindergarten through second grade students, who are not tested by the state. The next year, in 2018-19, the school’s third grade students took state tests, but the school only had 24 students, too small a group to receive a letter grade.

“We are here because our scholars took the LEAP assessment in the 2018-19 school year. Our students exceeded the city and state averages,” CEO Melanie Askew said. “Unfortunately these scores were not presented since we opened with such a small number of students.”

“It seems like you are clearly here by technicality,” board president Ethan Ashley said.

Askew presented a variety of academic and financial data, noting that two-thirds of Elan’s kindergarten through third grade students “grew a year and eight months in reading” last school year. She also said the school is on solid financial footing.

Four parents gave public comments and sang the school’s praises, requesting it receive a new charter. 

“I really cannot express to you enough how supportive the school has been,” parent Carneisha Brown said. “We’ve had a lot of challenges as a city over the last two years — and they’ve done a great job supporting the students.”

Fannie C. Williams Charter School

Fannie C. Williams Charter School received a D from the state in the 2018-19 school year. The school had an F in assessment and a B in growth that year, which led to an overall grade of a D.

CEO Kelly Batiste said the school’s grade of a D in 2018-19 followed a C the year prior. She also highlighted the 2018-19 growth score of a B. 

“Our data indicates a decline in mastery this year — which we believe is a direct result of the pandemic,” she said of students’ 2021 testing data. 

Batiste also noted many of the students she serves enter several grade levels behind. 

“We embrace and accept all students — most of whom enter our doors three levels behind in reading and math according to our internal diagnostics,” she said. 

Batiste said the school has not received any level-two non-compliance warnings from the district and is in a good financial position. 

“Obviously the academic direction is not trending in the direction we want it to,” board member Olin Parker said. “What’s the greatest change you’ve implemented to address that trend?”

“Mindset. We’ve worked to change to a growth mindset with our parents and staff,” Batiste said.

“We take kids where they are and are proud of the work we are able to gain from them.”

Harriet Tubman Charter School 

Harriet Tubman Charter School received a D in the 2018-19 school year. The school had an F in assessment and a B in growth that year, which led to an overall grade of a D.

CEO Kate Mehok said the school has completed two turnarounds. 

“We’ve completed two whole separate turnarounds,” she said. “This was the first charter to charter turnaround in the state. In just two years Tubman increased from an F to a C.”

In 2018, two F-rated charter schools near Tubman, McDonogh 32 Charter School and William Fischer Elementary School, were in danger of closing. They were housed in old buildings which made it further unlikely another charter group would want to take over the school. Mehok said that led her charter group to consider expanding.

“Tubman knew that NOLA-PS wanted to close those schools. We had the leadership capacity to expand and wanted to provide an option to families,” Mehok said. “NOLA-PS supported the plan and halted enrollment at those two schools. We grew from 600 to 1000.”

“We knew they would count in our 2020-21 scores,” she said. “We took that risk and opened 40 seats in every grade to provide an opportunity for kids.”

Board member John Brown Sr. said he was pleased with the presentation

“What I heard from the presentation was quite encouraging,” he said. 

But Ashley questioned the expansion, asking whether Tubman “grew too fast” and asked for further explanation. 

Mehok explained that the “risk” in expanding mid-contract was that students may still be catching up when the renewal year came in 2021. But expanding in 2019 in theory would give them two years to complete the turnaround, she said.

“We also knew that the 2021 test scores will lead to renewal,” she said. “What we did not anticipate was that we wouldn’t test in ‘20 and — COVID.”

James M. Singleton Charter School

James M. Singleton Charter School received an F in the 2018-19 school year. The school had an F in assessment and a C in growth that year, which led to an overall grade of a F.

The school has also been under intense scrutiny by the district over how its operator, Dryades YMCA, has run the school. It has faced repeated warnings over its financial practices, adherence to policy and state and federal education laws, as well as a recent scandal over how it has conducted employee background checks, which led to the arrest of an administrator. 

Singleton Principal Erika Mann, who joined the school in 2019, kicked off the school’s presentation focusing on academics. 

“I found a gem of a school in need of a stern hand and dedicated care,” she said. “A school that was understaffed with only 32 percent of staff being certified. A school where only 15 percent of students were leading at grade level and no curriculum in place. The lowest score, F.”

Mann said 45 percent of her students walk to school each day, calling it a “neighborhood school.”

“Due to the alarming amount of schools that have abruptly closed in Central City there are a number of students we’ve taken in who have been displaced in the last three years,” she said. “To halt this progress at this juncture would be heartbreaking. These successive school closures disproportionately disenfranchise our black and brown children.”

Mann showed the board data on student growth from last year, and said she believed the school’s next overall letter grade should show improvement.

“They haven’t given letter grades so — I believe if all things came out we would definitely be a D-plus-ish. But without all those other pieces I can’t stand there and say what we would be.”

But Singleton has more than just academic concerns at stake. The district has issued a number of warnings for financial and operational matters over the last two years — and threatened to revoke the school’s charter over the summer. Chief among those concerns, at least recently, is an audit that concluded the Dryades YMCA — which holds the charter for Singleton — owed the school, and other Dryades programs, $1.1 million. 

When the district threatened to revoke Singleton’s charter over the summer, the Dryades YMCA sued the district and received a restraining order preventing the district from interfering with the school’s operations. Charline Gipson, who was present Wednesday, is representing the school. 

Interim CEO Samuel Odom addressed those concerns.

“We find ourselves in an existential moment. We urge NOLA Public Schools to remember that it is not what organizations do, but more importantly why,” he said. Our children are paying for a lot of adult mistakes; let’s safeguard our future by not committing another one. 

For years, the Dryades YMCA and Singleton operated as one entity. In 2019, NOLA Public Schools asked the entities to split to preserve school funds in school accounts and so that the school leader would answer to a school committee, not the entire Dryades YMCA board.

The Dryades board formed what it calls the Education Advisory Committee, who Mann now answers to.  

But later, auditors reviewed financial records — including some from before the split — that led them to conclude the YMCA owed the school money. Odom and the school’s lawyer, Charline Gipson, contend the entity could not owe itself money.

“In an ill-advised and legally erroneous attempt to loosely track the use of MFP deposits to Dryades bank accounts (albeit good faith), certain entries were misclassified as amounts owing from Dryades YMCA to itself d/b/a James M. Singleton Charter School – when it was one and the same legal entity,” an Oct. 1 letter from the school to the district states.

NOLA Public Schools officials said they had not received such a letter. Odom rushed to re-send it during the meeting. 

Odom and Gipson stood by that explanation Wednesday evening. Most charter renewal presentations took about 30 minutes, while Singleton’s went well over an hour — at times resembling a courtroom — as board president Ethan Ashley, who is also an attorney, questioned Gipson. 

“The letter that I just went over and re-sent to Mr. Smith addresses the $10,000 in addition to a resolution by the board that offset that number by $240,000,” Odom said, referencing two different amounts the school could now account for, and adding that the million-plus figure was “inaccurate.” 

“So there’s still $800,000 that’s owed,” board member Marshall asked. 

“Right. We are working to provide documentation to further address that deficit,” Odom said, which prompted Gipson to approach the microphone.

“There was a legal fiction that there were two separate entities,” Gipson said, noting the YMCA is still working on tracking funds.

“That is a process that is still underway. We want to acknowledge this is an ongoing process and it is of a historic nature,” she said.

“What is the number?” Ashley asked.

But Gipson stuck to the line of argument that the reported debt is a mistake. 

“There is an internal fiction of the alleged debt,” Gipson said.

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...