New Orleans' Historic Black High School To Be Run By Charter Group

Dec 21, 2018

Community anger boiled over at Thursday's Orleans Parish School Board meeting as parents and community leaders publically fumed over superintendent Henderson Lewis' decision to charter McDonogh 35, New Orleans' historic black high school.

The boardroom was packed, with people standing in the aisles and spilling out into the hallway.  Superintendent Henderson Lewis could barely be heard over chants and jeers as he announced his recommendation that charter group InspireNOLA take over operations at McDonogh 35 beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. 

"We have engaged our students, our families and our parents as we continue to make the best decision for McDonogh 35," Lewis said.

Lewis approved an application for InspireNOLA to start a new charter school in November. Thursday, he decided that new charter school would be sited at McDonogh 35. Neither move requires a vote by the 7-member school board.

McDonogh 35 is one of the last schools the board still runs directly. In the years since Hurricane Katrina, McDonogh 35's student performance on state tests has plummeted. Lewis has been trying to charter the school for a while, and he says InspireNOLA has a good track record of turning around struggling schools. The charter group runs six schools in the city, including two rare "A"-rated schools: Edna Karr High School and Alice Harte Charter School.  In 2016, the the group took over then "F"-rated Andrew Wilson Charter School, and its student perfromance has risen substantially since then.

"Our students are always our priority," InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely told the board, over shouts and jeers from the crowd. "I will continue to work with the alumni, I will continue to work with the students, I will continue to work with the parents to make sure McDonogh 35 is where it needs to be."

But many students, parents and alumni of McDonnogh 35 say the district should invest in improving the historic black high school, not hand it over to a charter operator. 

Lynn Pittman is a McDonogh 35 almuna, parent and vice president of the McDonogh 35 parent-teacher organization. She's one of dozens who spoke out against the move to charter the school.

"We want you to provide the school with all the necessary resources and supports it needs to ensure its success and stop the decline of the school, which has been used to justify giving the school to a private operator," she told the board.

The new charter school at McDonogh 35 will open for the 2019-2020 school year for 9th grade students only, and will be called McDonogh #35 College Preperatory High School. The school is already listed on the OneApp, the district's common enrollment tool.

The students already at McDonogh 35 who choose to stay next year will not be students of the new InspireNOLA charter school. The district will continue to educate them in the same building, as a direct-run school - creating two McDonogh 35 high schools under the same roof. Thursday night, the board voted 5-2 to allow InspireNOLA to contract with OPSB to run services for the rising 11th and 12th graders. So, in a complicated arrangement, InspireNOLA will run two McDonogh 35s next year under the same roof - one, a charter school for 9th grade students, and one, a non-charter contract school for the existing 11th and 12th grade students. Each school will get its own student performance score.

The district has one other non-charter contract school: Travis Hill School, inside the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center.

Dissenting board members were Ben Kleban and Nolan Marshall, Jr., who voted against giving InspireNOLA a non-charter contract to run the 11th and 12th grades.