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Principals At Bethune, Baby Ben Push To Charter Last District-Run Elementary Schools

Supporters of the leadership at Bethune and Baby Ben cheer for a student who urged the OPSB to grant Bethune's current leadership a charter.
Jess Clark
Supporters of the leadership at Bethune and Baby Ben cheer a student who urged the OPSB to grant Bethune's current leadership a charter at Thursday's public hearing.

It's the general understanding that Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary and Benjamin Franklin Elementary and Middle will become charter schools. The only question is when that will happen, and who will run them. The schools' current principals think it should be them, so they applied to the Orleans Parish School Board to convert them into charters beginning next year. But an independent report recommended the board deny their applications.

"Both of us have over 20 years of experience, and it's just a shock," Bethune principal Mary Hanes Smith said. She and dozens of Bethune and Ben Franklin parents, teachers and several students came to a public hearing Thursday night to take issue with the report and urge the board to grant the schools' current leadership the charters.

Both Bethune and Ben Franklin are high-demand among parents, and they have outperformed the district on the state's school grading system. They are also the city's last two non-charter elementary schools, now that Mahalia Jackson is set to close at the end of the school year.

"We have been consistently a 'B' school ever since they gave school performance scores," Ben Franklin Elementary and Middle School principal Charlotte Matthew said. The district average is a 'C.'

The report, from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, questioned the expertise of the proposed charter school boards. Charter school boards function as the governing body for individual charter schools. They hold the charter and are ultimately responsible for the schools' success or failure.

Evaluators describedthe proposed charter board for Ben Franklin as having "an overall demonstrated lack of capacity," and wrote that it "remains unclear how the governing board would provide effective academic, financial and administrative oversight of the school, especially in regards to supporting and evaluating school leadership."

Evaluators' assessmentof the proposed Bethune board was more critical. "It is unclear that the applicant and school leadership are fully aware of the roles and responsibilities they will inherit upon being chartered," the report on Bethune reads.

The communities of Bethune and Baby Ben weren't alone in taking issue with the independent reports. Kate Mehok, CEO of the charter school network Crescent City Schools, also pushed back against the evaluators' assessments of Hanes Smith and Matthew's applications.

"It seems that they get lauded over and over again as district principals," Mehok said. "And so if you're not going to give it to them, who are you going to give it to?"

Mehok also took issue with evaluators' negative assessment of her network's application to takeover a low-performing school.

"If we don't meet the standard, then my question is, 'What's the standard?'"

Orleans Parish School Superintendent Henderson Lewis will make his recommendations to the Orleans Parish School Board next month on who to grant charters to and who to deny. His recommendation is final, unless the parish school board can overturn his recommendation with a two-thirds majority. 

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