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Education

These 2 New Orleans schools could close their doors at the end of the school year

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
James M. Singleton Charter School at the Dryades YMCA on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. July 4, 2021.

New Orleans’ two lowest performing public schools up for charter renewal this year will close at the end of the 2021-22 school year when their operating agreements expire, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Thursday night as part of the district’s annual charter renewal process.

Lewis said he would not renew the district’s charter operating agreements with ARISE Schools and the Dryades YMCA to operate ARISE Academy, in the Upper Ninth Ward, and James M. Singleton Charter School, in Central City, respectively.

“These are not decisions I make lightly because they are so important to the success of our educational model and our individual students,” Lewis said. “Our schools have worked hard to support our students, but the renewal process is necessary to be sure schools are meeting the high standards that our students and our community deserve.”

Lewis said he does not intend to keep the schools open under new leadership and will instead offer the facilities to pre-existing schools looking to expand.

Superintendent recommendations are non-binding, and the district’s school board could choose to overturn Lewis’ decision, or part of it, with a supermajority vote. That’s unlikely though, since some members have already voiced support for this year's recommendations, and Lewis’ past decisions have rarely been contested.

ARISE and Singleton were two of six district schools up for renewal this year that failed to earn an automatic extension based on the district’s charter renewal standards. As a result, they were subject to a lengthy evaluation.

Both schools received F letter scores on the state’s performance and progress index as well as on the district’s own performance index for the 2018-19 school year. New scores have not been issued since then due to the pandemic.

Last year, the board passed an amendment that spells out temporary changes to the district’s charter renewal process due to the absence of state-issued assessment scores and corresponding letter grades.

Schools that failed to meet standards for automatic renewal underwent a comprehensive review process where the district considered a variety of factors including enrollment, student achievement, financial and organizational compliance and the stability of charter leadership.

Comprehensive evaluation schools also had the opportunity to make their own case for renewal at a special board meeting early last month.

“I appreciate the ability to be able to work with the partner schools to come up with a fair way forward,” said board member Carlos Zervigon. “I think we should feel proud at this moment.”

Lewis said families with students attending both schools will need to participate in the district’s common application process to select a new school for the 2022-23 school year. ARISE and Singleton enroll more than 700 students in grades K-8.

The district’s application closes on Jan 21, 2022, and families with students at closing schools will be given priority access to available seats, Lewis said. Parents will also have access to the website EdNavigator and district staff to help them make a decision for the coming school year.

While ARISE has received no compliance warnings and is in good financial standing, Singleton has received multiple warnings for a host of issues and is currently being investigated by the city’s district attorney for alleged financial mismanagement.

NOLA Public Schools, the only all-charter district in the country, manages a portfolio of 76 independent schools. Each year schools up for renewal go through a months-long review process and the district decides whether to extend their contract by several years or bring the agreement to an end.

The six schools at risk of closing this year in addition to ARISE and Singleton were Einstein Charter School at Sherwood Forest, Fannie C. Williams Charter School, Harriet Tubman Charter School, and Elan Academy. The four renewed schools all received 3-year extensions.

Lewis attempted to close Singleton before the start of the 2021-22 school year after the district accused the school’s charter operator, the Dryades YMCA, of financial mismanagement.

Dryades responded by filing a lawsuit in July, arguing the revocation was rash and violated its agreement with the district. They were granted a stay, which ultimately allowed them to hold onto their charter through the end of the school year.

Earlier this month, Williams launched a special investigation into Dryades after the district wrote to him alleging that the organization had misappropriated more than $1 million in school funding. The investigation is ongoing.

In its decision to not renew Dryades’ charter, the district cited multiple instances in which the organization’s board failed to comply with financial and ethical standards. Dryades has received several high level warnings for a host of issues including failing to perform employee background checks and provide services for students with disabilities.

The district also cited Singleton’s academic data in its non-renewal decision. In almost every instance, students at the school underperformed when compared to overall scores posted by the school system and the state.

ARISE also received an F on both the state’s performance and progress index for the 2018-19 school year and on the district’s own school performance renewal index. ARISE students scored lower on standardized tests administered during the pandemic than other students, but were on par or outperformed their peers in terms of year-over-year growth.

Jolene Galpin, the new CEO of ARISE Schools, which operates ARISE and Mildred Osborne Charter School, told the board in October that recent test scores at ARISE were “unacceptable” and that she was treating this year as an “internal turnaround.”

“We know that if this year we can win on joyful environment, K-2 literacy and team teaching, we are well on track to turn around ARISE Academy.”

Galpin said some of the school’s main priorities going into the 2021-22 school year are increasing student attendance, improving K-2 literacy and implementing restorative practices when it comes to student discipline.

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Phoebe Jones
In a file photo, ARISE Academy students Corey Frazier, 11, (left) and Sky Hughes, 12 are given ices as a reward for good attendance. March 26, 2021.

While students leaving ARISE have several nearby options, Singleton is Central City’s only K-8 school. The neighborhood has one middle school, one high school and two alternative high schools.

Eight schools passed their renewal reviews and six additional schools received extensions to complete the fifth year of their initial contract terms. Six schools qualified for a comprehensive evaluation and four of them were recommended for renewal.

Lewis also announced the length of charter contracts for district schools that were up for renewal and received charter extensions.

  • Einstein Charter High School at Sarah T. Reed, 5 years
  • Einstein Charter Middle School at Sarah T. Reed, 5 years
  • Einstein Charter School at Village de l’Est, 5 years
  • Eleanor McMain Secondary School, 7 years
  • Martin Behrman Charter Academy of Creative Arts and Science, 5 years
  • McDonogh 42 Charter School, 5 years
  • Rooted School, 5 years
  • The NET 2 Charter High School Gentilly, 5 years

At Thursday’s meeting, the board also voted to accept a $350,000 grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to start developing a “district-wide early warning system to better support students across the district.”

Schools share student information in a traditional district, including discipline and attendance records, with a central office. But because New Orleans is an all-charter district, the sharing of “critical student data” is “fragmented” and only extends to a handful of schools, according to the district’s grant application.

“We’re unable to monitor student attendance and provide supports and interventions, we’re unable to develop an early warning system, and we’re unable to support our non-profit partners,” the district’s grant application said.

School board members have requested the development of an early warning system for years and the district required schools to report attendance rates on a weekly basis for part of the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic.

The district’s grant application also said the development of a centralized system could be used to monitor college matriculation, credit accumulation and certification rates. The district has taken steps to more closely monitor credit accumulation since John F. Kennedy High School’s graduation scandal in 2019.

The first phase of the project will be focused on building the infrastructure needed to connect schools to the district, followed by building and piloting an attendance monitoring and intervention system, according to the application. Project work related to the grant must be completed by Aug. 2022.

Board members also selected Greenwood Asher & Associates, a Florida based firm, to conduct the district’s superintendent search process. The approved $90,000 contract is for three months with the option to extend on a month to month basis after that.

Lewis announced earlier this year that he will leave the district when his contract expires at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

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