Summer break is over. This month, kids across New Orleans are trading swimsuits and morning cartoons for fresh notebooks and unsharpened pencils. For nine schools that used to be in the state's Recovery School District, going back to the classroom also means going back to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). By next year, all Recovery schools will be back under parish control.
FirstLine schools is among the charter school networks sending schools back to OPSB this year. FirstLine CEO Jay Altman says the decision wasn't taken lightly by parents and staff. They wanted to know what would be different once FirstLine became part of the Orleans Parish system.
"That was clearly one of the big questions, particularly from parents," Altman says. "Many parents saying they don't want it to go back where it was before."
"Before," that is, the state took over the Orleans Parish school system and allowed charter school operators to take the wheel. Altman says FirstLine needed to know they would keep their autonomy after the transition back to local control.
"If they're [charter management organizations] going to be accountable, they need to have control over the key levers that will lead to good outcomes for students," Altman says.
Curriculum, staffing, budgets, calendars — these are all things Altman says charter schools need control over, even under OPSB. They got their wish: OPSB will still have the power to close charters not meeting its standards, and charter leaders will keep their autonomy. FirstLine sent four of its schools back to OPSB this fall — about a year before the deadline for all schools in the Recovery School District to return to local control. Other schools going back this fall are two New Beginnings charter schools, KIPP Renaissance, Abramson Sci Academy and Dr. King Charter School.
There are some in the city who are skeptical of the arrangement between OPSB and charters.
At a playground Uptown, Saundra Reed warns her 5-year-old grandson, Jay, away from a puddle of dark sticky-looking mud. Jay started school last week with his two older siblings at Bricolage, a charter school that's already under parish control.
Reed says she supports moving all the schools back to OPSB — a process school officials call "unification." But she wants OPSB to have more regulating power over charter schools' educational quality. She's disappointed that under the unification plan, one of the main functions of OPSB will be managing school facilities.
"Now that’s a realtor's job. You know?" Reed says. "You can give me the money back, and you can give me the buildings back, and we can now have dominion over that. But is that really education, or is that site management?"
What's more, Reed says she doesn't like the way the unification process has been handled. Reed and many in her community are still scarred by the state's takeover of the school system after Hurricane Katrina. She felt left out of the discussion then, and now.
"I don't trust it. I don't trust it because of what happened to start this ball rolling," she says.
OPSB superintendent Henderson Lewis says OPSB has been engaging the community. He points to a survey the school system put out on its website, and made available in paper form at some public locations — though those surveys did not specifically address unification. There have also been several meetings of the unification oversight board, which have been open to the public.
"We are in the process of actually looking forward to some of our upcoming town hall meetings to continue to engage our families and update them on the surveys that we've done, and also the feedback that we've received over the course of the last year," Lewis says.
Those town hall meetings are scheduled at several different schools over the next three weeks.
Reed plans to be there. She says she's hoping those meetings will allow for more open dialogue between school system leaders and the public about what the new unified school system will look like.
TOWN HALL MEETINGS DATES AND LOCATIONS:
Alice Harte Elementary – Wednesday, Aug. 23 at 6 p.m.
5300 Berkley Drive, New Orleans, LA 70131
KIPP Central City Academy – Thursday, Aug. 24 at 6 p.m.
2514 Third St., New Orleans, LA 70113
Lake Forest Charter – Thursday, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m.
11110 Lake Forest Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70128
McDonogh 35 High School – Thursday, Sept. 7 at 6 p.m.
4000 Cadillac St. New Orleans, LA 70122