Charter school group closing final school

Hoffman Early Learning Center will remain open, even though founding charter school group New Orleans Colledge Prep is shuttering.

Hoffman Early Learning Center will remain open as founding charter group New Orleans College Prep closes its last charter school this summer, NOCP’s CEO told The Lens. 

The “diverse-by-design” birth-to-four preschool opened in 2016, a mixed model of Head Start and tuition students. Plans were to one day share its site with a new Hoffman Elementary School. But as NOCP winds down school operations with the transfer of Walter L. Cohen High School to Collegiate Academies and the district faces declining enrollment, a new elementary school is unlikely.

Hoffman currently enrolls 149 kids ages birth through four-years-old and will remain open as an independent entity, reporting to NOCP’s board. 

Cohen is the third school the charter group operated and lost due to failing state letter grades. Sylvanie Williams closed in 2018 as an F rated charter school and Crocker College Prep closed in 2021 with an F as well. Cohen, a storied high school, has faced tough years with enrollment dwindling to 150 students this year. Collegiate will take over the school as it moves into its new facility next to its original site on Dryades Street. 

NOCP founder Ben Kleban left the organization in 2016 to run for school board and was elected when his opponent withdrew from the race. He resigned from his seat a year early in 2020 citing family reasons. 

The loss of Cohen will fundamentally change the responsibilities of the NOCP board of directors and raise questions about the entity’s continued use of property purchased with public funds. 

Hoffman operates out of portable buildings, purchased by NOCP from another closing charter school, on land owned by the Orleans Parish School Board. 

NOCP CEO J’Vann Martin said the board directed the center’s staff to report directly to them and has implemented “strict financial controls” and will help ensure the center has back-office support from NOCP or a third-party business vendor.

“Hoffman Early Learning Center is operating independently without interference from myself, the NOCP CEO, and the central office staff,” Martin wrote. “As indicated by the Board, any activity regarding Hoffman is to be managed by Hoffman’s Executive Director, Zerlander Ragas, who will report directly to the Board.”

“The NOCP leadership and Board have spent considerable time and effort to ensure each of its subsidiary schools is financially stable on its own; and, at this time, I am pleased to report that the overall fund balance for Hoffman is healthy,” she wrote. 

“The financial viability of NOCP and Hoffman after the handover of Walter L. Cohen High School – and the subsequent close out of all Cohen-related liabilities – is well situated to operate Hoffman for the foreseeable future,” Martin wrote. 

“Due to the nature of these decisions by the NOCP Board of Directors, their timing, their impact on individuals’ employment, and contract negotiations with outside vendors, further detail is not yet available,” Martin wrote. “The leadership and Board of NOCP continue to operate as transparently as possible while respecting the sensitivity around private matters related to its employees, the children, their families, and our other community stakeholders.”

Neither Hoffman’s Executive Director, Zerlander Ragas, nor Board Chair Patrick Norton responded to a request for comment. 

NOLA Public Schools, the managerial arm of the Orleans Parish School Board, said the group has an active lease for the Hoffman site. 

“NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS) has a lease with New Orleans College Prep (NOCP) for the Hoffman Early Learning Program that is still current. NOCP closing at Cohen should not impact the early learning program at the Hoffman site,” district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote in an email.

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...