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All-charter no more. New Orleans' school board will run a school this fall

Superintendent Avis Williams (center) and members of New Orleans' school board after voting to directly run a school next fall on Feb. 26, 2024.
Aubri Juhasz
Superintendent Avis Williams (center) and members of New Orleans' school board after voting to directly run a school next fall on Feb. 26, 2024.

New Orleans’ school board will run a school directly next school year — and beyond.

It’s a big move for the country’s only all-charter public school system, which hasn’t operated a school directly since 2019 and has had mostly charters for much longer.

“I think there’s an idea that we either need to have charter schools or direct-run schools,” board member Olin Parker said during last week’s committee meeting. “There is room for, and we should have, both."

Board member Carlos Zervigon said at the same time that the stakes are high.

“If we mess this up, it will be, ‘Look what happened last time they tried to run a school.’”

The board voted unanimously Monday to directly run Lafayette Academy, which lost its charter during this year’s renewal process. It’s the first time the district has moved to open a direct-run school after two decades of transitioning to an all-charter system.

And the board took things a step further, instructing Superintendent Avis Williams to come up with a plan to run more schools directly.

“For the first time, we are saying we want additional direct-run schools,” Parker said after proposing the measure as an amendment.

“We tell her the what and she tells us the how.”

Board members initially voiced their support for a direct-run school last month, when they urged Williams to run Lafayette directly after she announced she would close the school.

The PreK-8 school, on South Carrollton Avenue, was initially expected to remain open under a new operator. But when one failed to step forward, Williams said she would shut the campus down, saying the district wasn’t ready to run a school that would meet her standards.

Board members argued the district would never be completely ready and had a responsibility to families to keep the school open.

A day later, Williams reversed course and said the district would take the school on — albeit with fewer grades at first to allow time to gradually staff up.

“When I accepted this position I was clear there would be times when an unprecedented amount of boldness and decisiveness would be needed,” she said last week. “Perhaps this is that time.”

‘Failed experiment’

After Hurricane Katrina hit nearly two decades ago, the state took over most of New Orleans’ public schools and turned them over to charter operators.

Before the storm, though some schools excelled, the district was struggling overall. Only 56% percent of students graduated on time in 2005 and one in ten were picked up for skipping school.

In his book, Charter School City, researcher Doug Harris says deteriorating social and economic conditions played a role, but the school system was also at fault.

In the decade prior to Katrina, the average superintendent lasted less than a year. The federal government threatened to cut off funding due to mismanagement. And the FBI had so many investigations involving the city’s schools that it had its own office at the district’s headquarters. Many schools lacked basic resources like air conditioning and toilet paper.

Harris, who is a Tulane University professor and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, says the research is clear that New Orleans schools have improved substantially on every typical metric under the charter system.

“That's not to say that there aren't reasonable concerns,” Harris said Wednesday, pointing to a number of concerns including the decline in arts programming and a hyperfocus on standardized testing.

And there have been plenty of other significant issues related to charters over the years, from the impacts of "no-excuses" discipline, to the loss of homegrown teachers of color and copious special education violations.

Williams, who is relatively new to the city, acknowledged at last week’s meeting the pain the all-charter system has caused New Orleanians.

“Many feel that this district is something that was done to them,” she said. “I do understand why they feel that way and I wish I could make amends.”

When the state took over the city’s schools, it fired all of the district’s teachers. Many families felt as if their schools — often a point of pride for local communities — had been ripped away from them.

“The charter school program is a failed experiment,” said Gregory Manning, pastor of Broadmoor Community Church, at last week’s meeting.

Manning said when low-performing schools aren’t renewed, the district should put community schools in their place.

“It’s about time and it needs to happen to protect children in this city.”

Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans native and former U.S. congressman, said the churn created by the charter system, as schools open and close, has harmed kids.

“How can our kids have a village if you keep moving them around?”

Everyone who spoke at last week’s meeting and on Monday prior to the board’s vote voiced support for a direct-run school, though some board members initially argued the district needed another year to prepare.

Some speakers alluded to opposition though, including Richmond, who said he was there to “push back on the quiet business community” and do what’s right for children.

Community members applaud after a unanimous vote by New Orleans' school board to run a school directly next fall on Feb. 26, 2024.
Aubri Juhasz
Community members applaud after a unanimous vote by New Orleans' school board to run a school directly next fall on Feb. 26, 2024.

The Leah Chase School

The district will need to rebuild its capacity to run schools directly, including hiring teachers and contracting buses, while still overseeing nearly 70 charters.

Williams said the district will open a K-5 school this August in the Leah Chase building, named for the beloved late local chef, where Lafayette is currently. The Leah Chase School will celebrate the city’s culture and provide high-quality education, she said.

Some board members objected to the K-5 model to start, since Lafayette serves students in grades PreK-8. Williams said fewer grades are necessary at first to ensure the district can hire enough certified teachers. The school will grow each year, she said, and serve PreK-8 by 2027.

The district plans to serve 320 students at Leah Chase and needs to enroll at least 250 to operate, Williams said. Lafayette’s roughly 260 students entering grades 1-5 have guaranteed spots at the new school, though their families may choose to enroll them elsewhere. The district won’t have a clear picture of where kids are going to school until early June.

Williams said the district needs to hire dozens of employees, including a principal, teachers and support staff, as well as a chief academic officer to lead teacher training and develop curriculum.

The estimated cost to open the school is about $3.7 million, she said. The district will have to dip into its general fund, since it won’t receive state funding until it submits its student headcount on Oct. 1.

Williams said the timeline isn’t ideal to open a school, but she’s “confident in the ability” of her team.

Some board members were less confident.

Zervigon, whose district includes the school, said he had “grave concerns” and proposed delaying its opening a year, in part to include community feedback. Parker backed the move, but the two were outvoted.

“It is unlikely that we will be able to recruit the teachers, get the students back and ramp up for success — and it must be successful,” Zervigon said.

“If we mess this up, what does this mean for the Leah Chase family and what does this mean for the legacy of the possibility of direct-run?"

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.