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Closing Costs: Parents Push For Role In Choosing New Charter School Operator

Mallory Falk

The school year is winding down, and for three New Orleans charters, the last day will bring dramatic changes. Two of those schools are closing for good. The third – kindergarten through 8th grade school Andrew H. Wilson Charter – is getting a new operator.

The story of Wilson's future is the first in WWNO's series Closing Costs.

Wilson's contract was up for review this year. The school had to earn a D to get renewed. It missed the grade by less than one point.

"It was kind of like being hit with a Mack Truck in the front and being beaten up by Mike Tyson from the back," says Wilson principal Logan Crowe.

That's because this was the last chance. Charter schools have to meet certain academic benchmarks, based primarily on standardized tests. If they don't make the grade by the end of their contract, the state can bring in a new operator or shut the school down entirely.

Wilson has strong community ties. Broadmoor residents fought hard to reopen it after Katrina. It was one of the first five Quick Start Schools, fully renovated with FEMA money. The building stays open after school for community use: free ballet lessons, basketball, Zumba.

Keeping a failing school open by changing the charter operator.

Closing Wilson would mean closing a neighborhood hub. So Patrick Dobard, Superintendent of the Recovery School District, changed who ran the school instead.

"We know we didn't have the capacity in the system or even the desire to try to disperse 600-plus kids elsewhere," says Dobard. "They're in a fully renovated building. They're a cornerstone of the community."

He recommended — and the state board of education voted — to keep the school open, under new management. And that led to the next big question: who would run Wilson?

Some parents thought they should have a say. Like Lamont Douglas, whose daughter Taylor is in first grade.

"In our minds we were like, why would someone else who don't really know our children be in charge of picking someone who's gonna take over the school?" Douglas says.

Usually, families don't get to pick. In the past, the RSD assigned an operator and that was it. Since then it's opened up the process... some. Now it accepts multiple applications, a committee ranks them, and the RSD makes a final assignment.

But at Wilson, Lamont Douglas and other parents pushed to be involved. They got seats on the selection committee. And they used them.

"I think initially they just said 'let's give them the seats,'" Douglas says. "You know, just to be pacifying. I think they thought we were gonna come into the meeting and just be a fly on the wall. But we asked some of the pertinent questions that needed to be asked of these CMOs."

CMOs. Charter management organizations. Seven applied to run Wilson. The parents visited those organizations' other schools. They met with the CEOs. They did their own evaluations.

Their final pick: InspireNOLA. Its two other schools – Alice Harte and Edna Karr – have high letter grades and long waiting lists. And Inspire seemed like an operator that wouldn't treat the school and the students like failures.

"Our kids aren't failing kids," says Douglas' wife, Miesha Jackson. She teaches sixth grade math at Wilson. "You know that word 'takeover' means that you're just coming in and demolishing everything that we've built and you're gonna bring in your own things. Whereas Inpsire said 'hey, we're gonna consult you all and see what is it that you guys did, what worked well, what didn't work, and we're gonna work together.' The term that they used is 'transformation.'"

The parents and most committee members chose InspireNOLA. The RSD still had final say. And it agreed.

All this happened in the middle of the school year. The failing grade came out in October. The non-renewal decision in January. The last half of the school year has been rough, says outgoing principal Logan Crowe.

"The hardest part has been going through it this year, instead of just at the end of the year saying 'here's your scores, you didn't hit the mark, you gotta go,'" says Crowe.

It's like you're in a football game, he says, and told at halftime there's absolutely no way you'll win.

Some teachers left for guaranteed jobs at other schools. They took decorations down from the walls and wished their classes tearful goodbyes.

For some students, all these announcements and changes raised a question: were they responsible?

"I thought that it was all my fault, like mostly my fault," says seventh grader Ja'Naria. "Because like I wasn't taking like the school serious. I wasn't focusing and doing my best and my full potential."

Ja'Naria eventually realized her performance alone didn't lead to the F. But it took a while to shake the feeling.

Her friend Keyari, a sixth grader, has a different concern. A new operator with a good reputation might attract new students to the school, who feel superior.

"The students that's coming in gonna be probably like 'well this my school now 'cause y'all a F school,' and bragging about they not a F school," she says. "I think some students probably be like 'well we a F school and all that and they better than us.'"

She overhead an adult say Wilson students need extra help and special treatment.

"That wasn't right," she says. "I felt bad. Really bad. Really bad."

Parent Lamont Douglas looks forward to the coming year. He's been talking from a bench in Carousel Gardens in City Park. It's InspireNOLA Family Night, a chance for parents and students to meet the new team. Children race by, many still in their school uniforms – polo shirts with logos from Inspire's three schools: Harte, Karr, and now Wilson.

"We know, you know, things are not gonna just, you click your heels and spin around and it's gonna change," Douglas says. "We still as parents have to be aggressive in what we do to make sure that even though InspireNOLA is in charge right now, that they are accountable and that they do exactly what they have to do."

InspireNOLA wants to exceed expectations, says CEO Jamar McKneely. He's talked to parents in the neighborhood who won't send their kids to Wilson yet, but are watching. He wants those families clamoring to get in.

"49.1 or an F or a D is not good enough for us," McKneely says. "We have to at least become one of the top schools because they deserve this, their parents deserve this, and our city deserves this."

In July, Wilson will transfer over to InspireNOLA. Inspire has five years to raise the school's grade, before its contract comes up for review.

Support for education news on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries and Entergy Corporation.