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At First Board Meeting, New Members Push To Diversify District’s Schools

Aubri Juhasz
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. talks with Akili Academy fourth graders about the legacy of Ruby Bridges. Nov. 13, 2020.

Newly elected school board members sat for their first slate of meetings this week, probing district priorities ahead of this year’s charter application process.

The district is responsible for assessing requests to open new schools, which can come from charter management organizations that already work with the district or newcomers.

The application process begins in early February with applications due in April. After that, the district takes two months to review materials, conduct interviews and hold public hearings, with Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. expected to make final recommendations to the school board on June 11.

Last year, two organizations completed the application process. Kevin George, the district’s chief accountability officer, told board members he expects this year’s number to be higher based on the number of charter management organizations that have already expressed interest. If approved, new schools would open in the fall of 2022 at the earliest.

Several board members responded to George’s presentation, voicing their support for applications from new charter management organizations and calling on large CMOs to provide individual schools with greater autonomy.

“I want to make sure that we are being very intentional about the kinds of schools that we have available for our families … as opposed to a lot of the same schools that we're seeing throughout the city,” board member Jancarlos Wagner Romero said.

Many of the newly elected school board members, including Wagner Romero, ran on campaigns focused on increasing educational equity. Some neighborhoods lack high-quality schools, and sometimes even the number of seats at lower-performing schools are limited.

The district currently authorizes 36 separate CMOs to manage 73 schools. The district runs three schools directly. Another seven schools are overseen by Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or by the state legislature.

Credit The Cowen Institute

Many CMOs operate just one or two schools, but four operators collectively manage the highest number of schools. Collegiate Academies and FirstLine Schools manage five schools each, while KIPP New Orleans and InspireNOLA manage eight schools each.

“We need to be very careful to always try to expand program diversity, as that is one of the reasons that we have a decentralized system,” board member Carlos Luis Zervigón said.

Despite this core tenet, Zervigón said there’s been a “tendency to agglomerate to several large operators.”

District policy prohibits a single charter operator from enrolling more than 15 percent of Orleans Parish students. In the past, preapproved but unassigned charter contacts allowed the biggest operators to easily expand.

Zervigón stressed the importance of making sure charters don’t “push too hard” against the limit. He said the district should also make sure the total number of schools aligns with overall student enrollment and make sure they aren’t approving too many seats at the same time.

“If we have excess capacity then all schools could suffer if they don't have sufficient students in their school to run their program,” Zervigón said.

Wagner Romero said he’d like to see the district offer more schools with an emphasis on the arts or an expertise in serving students with special needs.

“I think this is a really great opportunity for there to be a turning point in what we do in terms of the kind of educational options we provide for our students and families,” Wagner Romero said.

George also provided an update on Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep, which was recommended for non-renewal in early December.

The district is currently in the process of securing a new charter operator for Crocker and has received two applications from Crescent City Schools and the Young Audiences Charter Association.

Crescent City Schools is well established in New Orleans, with three schools that serve more than 2,200 students. One of the schools, Paul Habans Charter School was recently granted a five-year extension following a renewal review.

Young Audiences Charter Association currently operates one school in Jefferson Parish that serves students in PreK through the 10th grade. During the 2019-20 school year, they enrolled approximately 1,100 students.

On Wednesday, the district was scheduled to host “engagement meetings” with both operators and Crocker students, families and staff. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is expected to select the new operator by Jan. 15 and inform the public by Jan. 18, according to a timeline shared with board members at Tuesday’s meeting.

At Thursday’s meeting, board members held a private executive session to discuss three legal cases involving the district, including one from 2019 against the City of New Orleans.

Board Elects New Leadership, Approves Committee Appointments

During a special meeting Monday afternoon, board members re-elected Ethan Ashley as president and elected Nolan Marshall Jr. as vice president. Both votes were unanimous.

The new board consists of three incumbents — Ashley, Marshall and John Brown Sr. — and four newcomers — Olin Parker, Katherin Baudouin, Wagner Romero and Zervigón.

“As a board, our focus is squarely on the need to not just recover from, but sustain during this time of an active pandemic. The health and safety of our students, families, educators, and the whole community is our number one priority,” Ashley said in a press release. “We’re dedicated to ensuring that all of our students are supported and educated well, while also keeping safety at the forefront of the work that we do.”

At Thursday’s meeting, board members were appointed to the following committees. Appointments will last for the duration of their four-year term.

Committee Chair: Dr. Jancarlos “J.C.” Wagner Romero
Ex-Officio: Ethan Ashley
Committee Members: Carlos Zervigón and Olin G. Parker

Policy Committee
Committee Chair: Olin G. Parker
Ex-Officio: Ethan Ashley
Committee Members: Nolan Marshall, Jr. and Katherine Baudouin

Budget & Finance
Committee Chair: John A. Brown, Sr.
Ex-Officio: Ethan Ashley
Committee Members: Olin G. Parker and Carlos Zervigón

Committee Chair: Katherine Baudouin
Committee Ethan Ashley
Committee Members: Nolan Marshall, Jr. and Dr. Jancarlos “J.C.” Wagner Romero

Legal & Legislative
Committee Chair: Carlos Zervigón
Ex-Officio: Ethan Ashley
Committee Members: Katherine Baudouin and John A. Brown, Sr.

Wagner Romero will also serve on the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission as a school board representative and Zervigón will serve on the Board of Directors for New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).

Former school board member Sarah Newell Usdin will maintain her seat on NOCCA’s board through the end of the school year at the request of NOCCA leadership. Zervigón’s appointment will begin July 1. 

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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