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Public schools close in New Orleans; it’s all charters now

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NEW ORLEANS: The second-graders went to the dumpster, in the rear parking lot, where they tossed their chucked boxes of old work sheets, notebooks and other trash, emptying their school for good.

Benjamin Banneker Elementary closed on Wednesday as New Orleans’ Recovery School District permanently shuttered its last five traditional public schools.

This is an experiment for the next school year. The district will be the first in the country to have public charter schools.

The first public charter school opened in Minnesota about 20 years ago; believed as a laboratory where innovations could be tested before their introduction into public schools. Currently, 42 states, including Ohio, encourage charters as alternative conventional schools, and enrollment have been growing, particularly in cities.

The District of Columbia, as an example, has 44 percent of the city’s students attend charter school.

However, in New Orleans, under the Recovery School District, the Louisiana state agency that seized control of almost all public schools after Hurricane Katrina that destroyed the city in 2005, the traditional system has been swept away.

The creation of this charter school system has improved education for many children in New Orleans. However, it has serious ties to a community institution, the neighborhood school, and reverberates concerns about racial equality and loss of parental control.

An all-charter district signals the dismantling of the central school bureaucracy and a shift of power to dozens of independent school operators, who will assume off the corresponding functions, i.e., the authority to hire and fire teachers and administrators, maintain buildings, run busses and provides services to special-needs students.

Of the Recovery School District’s 600 employees, 510 will be out of a job by the week's end. There were 33 students in the district must apply and in order to obtain a seat of the 58 public charter schools, relying on a computerized lottery to determine placement.

Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood.

“They don’t answer to anyone,” said Sean Johnson, the dean of students at Banneker, whose father attended the school while growing up in the Black Pearl neighborhood. “The charters have money and want to make more money. They have their own boards, make their own rules, accept who they want and put out who they want to put out.”

Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents.

“We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neeray Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. He is leaving the organization to try to export the model to other cities. “If I am unhappy with service, I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle, so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

School quality and academic progress have improved since the aftermath of Katrina, apparently it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.

In comparison, before the storm, the city’s graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at-grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the state.

So far, 41 percent of New Orleans residents backing the idea in a poll commissioned by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans. However, residents, who opposed, feel unease about the shuttering of all traditional schools.

The changes soar racial tensions and claims of disenfranchisement.

“This is a depressed community,” said Karran Royal Harper, an activist that has been trying to block the school closings. “People here don’t really feel like they can coalesce and fight this.”

Such moved that four other traditional schools were closing that created animosity and anger since Katrina.

“It’s bittersweet, but what are you going to do?” asked Myra Jenkins, 31, as she picked up her 5-year-old twin boys from kindergarten at A.P. Tureaud Elementary, a school encircled in barbed wire. The school received a “D” in Louisiana’s A-to-F grading system in 2013.

Some residents expressed that they are disheartened about the closing of its schools. “This don’t make no sense,” said Derrick Williams, 45, who walked his great niece to kindergarten on a recent day. “Me and my sister, the whole family, the whole neighborhood went to that school.”

A few miles away, 486 children attend the sparkling Akili Academy, a K-6 charter school. Akili, a “C” school, occupies the former William Franz Elementary School, in the Upper Ninth Ward, a building that underwent a $24 million restoration and expansion after Katrina. The school has a $250,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, established by the family that founded Wal-Mart.

“This is the most exciting city in the country for education,” said Kate Mehok, the chief executive officer of Crescent City Schools, which operates Akili.

When Katrina struck in 2005, New Orleans is the worst public school in the country. Before the storm, the elected Orleans Parish School District was bankrupt and unable to account for almost $71 million in federal money. At that time, there were few charter schools.

The state seized control of 102 of the city's 117 schools as the worst performers and created the appointed Recovery School District to oversee them, while letting the Orleans Parish School Board run relatively few remaining schools.

The Recovery School District closed failing traditional schools or turned them over to charter operators, never intending to reconstruct a traditional school system, said Patrick Dobard, the superintendent.

“We’ve had a clear plan in place,” Dobard said. “We’re going to create a new legacy, a new memory. We don’t have to hold onto some of the things in the past that didn’t work.”

The recovery district spends about $2 billion, much of its federal hurricane recovery money; to refurbish and build schools across the city, which then are leased to charter operators at no cost.

“The difference between now and pre-Katrina is that we’re replacing schools that are not performing well,” Dobard said. “We don’t let children languish in chronically poor-performing neighborhood schools. It was a system of haves and have nots. We passed those times in New Orleans, and I’m glad we left those behind us.”

Aftermath of Katrina, the recovery district fired about 7,000 employees, nearly most of them African-Americans, whereas the charter schools hired scores of young teachers many of them white recruits from Teach for America. The fired teachers sued for wrongful termination and won judgment that could total more than $1 billion.

In comparison, the white students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African-American students. Activist in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil-rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African-American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate OneApp, the city’s centralized school-enrollment lottery.

John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operation.

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