When it comes to Lafayette Academy, Robin Wright has some real history.
“It’s a family school,” she said. “Everyone went here. My daughters went here – they’re grown. My older grandsons went here.”
Her granddaughters are enrolled there now.
Wright thinks it’s a great experience for them. What does she love about it? “Everything,” she said. “It’s run smooth. They have any problems they call you. They really help them here. They’re learning.”
A few weeks ago, on January 12, NOLA Public Schools said it was going to close Lafayette’s doors in May. All students would have to go elsewhere next year, parents were told.
Distressed, Wright had driven through the rain to pay an evening visit to the school cafeteria, where enrollment staff from NOLA Public Schools tried to walk her through her granddaughters’ options for next year.
But her top choice – Lafayette – was not one of those options. “Oh, I was sad. I was really sad,” she said.
Nearby, another parent was trying to soothe her 10-year-old daughter, who had enrolled in Lafayette two years ago after a family tragedy and a move from out-of-state.
At first, the daughter could not even find words. She sat silently. Her mother asked if she could share her child’s reaction to Lafayette’s closure. The girl nodded.
“She asked me, ‘Am I losing everybody again?’” the mother said. This school community and its embrace of her daughter mattered to them, they said. They didn’t know how they would find that elsewhere.
A few days later, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Avis Williams completely reversed her closure decision. Late on that Friday evening, January 19, Lafayette Academy families and staff were notified — via a press release — that the closure might not happen. In the release, Williams described the reversal as a “strategic move following thorough consideration.”
Williams announced her hope that the district she oversees could direct-run a school at the Lafayette site, recently renamed Leah Chase School. The decision to direct-run must be approved by the Orleans Parish School Board, where she advocated for closing the school last month.
At this point, the district oversees 67 charter schools and does not directly run any schools itself.
The school board isn’t scheduled to meet again until Feb. 22 to vote on that suggestion. Though they could call a special meeting, it seems unlikely with Carnival ramping up over the next two weeks. At the January meeting last week, board member Nolan Marshall Jr. pushed for the board to decide whether they would run the school. But other members said they needed more time to consider the idea and allow district staff to prepare information.
That means that the district’s plans won’t be cemented until February. So there are no guarantees.
Before Friday’s enrollment deadline, Lafayette parents had to choose a different school in the district’s common application process, NCAP, (formerly OneApp). Because the newly envisioned, district-run school hasn’t been formally approved – families could not choose it on the application.
Should the school be approved, families can enroll in the summer, when the district opens up enrollment.
The once-chaotic enrollment process has improved over the last decade, when families stood in the heat in long lines or waited in an auditorium for their numbers to be called. But still, families who hope to return to Lafayette at the Leah Chase building next fall will spend the next few months not knowing.
On one hand, Wright breathed a sigh of relief. On the other hand, she didn’t understand why they had to go through this uncertainty while her granddaughters were in middle school, just a few years away from another switch, to high school, she said.
“It’s Not OK”
On Friday the 19th, the district sent its late-night announcement about direct-running Lafayette. That came one day after a heated discussion about the school at the Orleans Parish School Board meeting.
The school must remain open in some capacity, emphasized Carlos Zervigon, board member for District 6, which includes Lafayette. “Lafayette – Leah Chase – cannot be empty,” he said. “(It) cannot be a vacant building, considering the investments we’ve made in it, its legacy, and where it is geographically. We must make this work.”
By that point in mid-January, more than a month had passed after the district knew no other charter groups wanted to operate the school.
Caroline Roemer, of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said that she had thought of writing a letter to the superintendent. Instead, she said, “I came .. to look at you directly and say: We do not believe Lafayette was appropriately handled as it relates to communicating to families about what was going to take place.”
“You made a decision to close, and then you promised, Dr. Williams, that you wouldn’t close the school, that it would be open this coming school year,” Roemer said. “I’m sure you did that with the belief that this would get worked out. It did not. And the way it was communicated was through an email the day before a press release came out on a Friday before a major holiday. It’s not OK.”
During the meeting, Williams told the board that the estimated price-tag to start-up the direct-run was $3.8 million. So clearly, there were internal calculations and discussions on the topic.
In January 2019, in the middle of the academic year, after Edgar P. Harney school failed to comply with state laws and district policies, the superintendent demanded the school hand over its charter and let the district direct-run it. But the district wasn’t prepared for the mid-year takeover; because federal funding had been awarded to the charter in the fall and couldn’t be transferred, the district lost more than $400,000 in funding for the year.
The district also stepped in to run Cypress Academy after parents were caught by surprise by its charter board’s abrupt closure in the spring of 2019, a few days before the end of the school year. The district ran it for one year, to give parents and children a longer off-ramp into other schools, before closing it in May 2019 and handing over its students to Foundation Preparatory Academy – run by Communities Academies. The district’s last direct-run school was the storied McDonogh 35 Senior High School. It slowly handed over high school to InspireNola, first under a contract and then a charter.
The day before the district announced its intent to keep the school open, Rafael Simmons, the district’s Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer, stood in the Lafayette cafeteria and explained what had been said at a meeting earlier that day. “Dr. Williams shared a little about direct-run schools,” he said, noting that the district had stepped in a few times in recent years to run schools. The experience wasn’t superb, he said. “We haven’t been good at it. We don’t have a teaching and learning division.”
District officials had broached the idea of direct-running the school in December, in conversations with Community Academies personnel. But the concept didn’t move forward, for reasons that didn’t make sense to some school board members.
“I don’t want any more excuses,” said board member Leila Eames, a retired educator at the meeting last week. “As the superintendent you really should have come with a plan to direct-run in your back pocket.”
The board itself was not blameless, said board member Katie Baudouin, who noted that she and the board’s other members had voted the previous month not to extend Lafayette’s contract. “I want to take some responsibility (for that),” said Baudouin, who criticized the district’s inability to anticipate its next steps after the December vote. “It doesn’t feel like there was a plan for what would happen in the Leah Chase building,” she said.
Its ending is still unclear. But the ordeal started in November.
All of this started in late November, when Lafayette earned an F as a state-issued School Performance Score. Superintendent Avis Williams recommended pulling the contract from Community Academies of New Orleans, the charter-management organization, which had one year left on the agreement.
In early December, after deep discussions with the district, Community Academies announced it had accepted the district’s decision to pull its charter, after district officials had said the school wouldn’t close completely. Another charter group would likely take over the school, officials promised.
Then, a month later, after no other charter group applied to manage the school, NOLA Public Schools announced that Lafayette would close.
“They said nobody wanted to take them in,” Wright’s granddaughter Sania Scott said, sitting at a cafeteria table beside her grandmother on that rainy evening a few weeks ago.
Critics of the threatened closure say that the trajectory of Lafayette’s story started earlier, in 2020, after Lafayette was deemed to be failing under another operator. Community Academies had – at the school district’s request – stepped in and taken over the contract. Despite the challenges of education during COVID, Lafayette officials said they’d seen growth and, at 49.1 points on the state’s scale, they were less than 1 point away from a “D” rating, which could have qualified them for an extension.
“I’m not understanding why they’re closing down,” Wright said. “They could have given us another year to try.”
Think of the school as an intact community, said state Sen. Joseph Bouie Jr., who has long criticized the state’s charter school law and the way it’s been implemented in New Orleans. “Whenever there’s a decision to close a school or give it to another charter operator that automatically disrupts families and those children,” he said. “The stable condition they’ve known is now gone.”
Bouie, a trained social worker and social-work professor by profession, can explain in detail how children need stability to thrive. Even if students return to the same building, their stability is still disrupted, if the district brings in a new charter operator or converts to a direct-run school, as Williams has proposed.
“If you change the teachers, you are in fact changing the school,” Bouie said.
Katy Reckdahl and La’Shance Perry contributed reporting to this story.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect the accurate hand-off timeline of McDonogh 35. (Jan. 31, 2024)