Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

School districts outline next steps for reunification

31st May 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

As the city’s divided school districts move forward toward “reunification,” Recovery School District (RSD) Superintendent Patrick Dobard outlined the next steps in front of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) at a meeting held last week at Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly.

After HB 432 was passed by the Louisiana legislature and signed by the governor May 12, it became Act 91.

Under Act 91, a transition plan must be submitted by Sept. 1 for the return of the schools from the RSD to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).

All schools must be returned by July 1, 2019, according to the legislation. Act 91 will effectively unify 52 RSD charter schools, 18 OPSB charter schools, and 5 OPSB “network,” or “direct-run” schools.

A 13-member advisory committee will meet regularly to draft that plan, beginning on June 1.

The committee includes Dobard, OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Sharon Clark (Sophie B. Wright), Jay Altma (Firstline), Kellie Batiste (Fannie C. Williams), Rene Carter-Lewis (ACSA), Jamar McKneely (InspireNOLA), Alexina Medley (Warren Easton), Nicolette London (OPSB), Erika McConduit (Urban League), Deirdre Johnson (OPEN), Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise (KIPP), and Doris Hicks (Friends of King).

There will also be a series of community meetings between July 21 and August 11. Additional public input will be solicited online in a “public comment portal” on the OPSB website, and during a public review period for the draft plan. A draft of the plan will be submitted by July 15, and will be posted on the OPSB website.

While it was all smiles at the BESE meeting, it is still too soon to declare success of the all-charter Recovery School District now legally mandated to move under the purview of the local board.

Critics have expressed concern about Act 91 keeping too much autonomy in the hands of charter operators and out of the OPSB, however there were no such opinions expressed at last week’s BESE meeting.

There are still troubling aspects of the past decade of “reform” that were not specifically addressed moving forward.

Just in the past year, major cheating scandals were exposed in several schools. There’s also the issue of how the fractured system has been accounting for students who are not in school, and the over reliance on out of school suspensions as a disciplinary tool. There’s the persistent problem of charter schools discouraging parents to enroll students with special needs, pushing harder to serve students out, and not providing the legal required services to students with special needs, which culminated in a lawsuit filed against the state by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The state agreed to settle the lawsuit over a year ago, which laid out not a monetary settlement but increased accountability and mechanisms for ensuring the charter school were following the special education laws.

There’s also been virtually no oversight on what charter schools spend on administrative salaries – which have skyrocketed since pre-Katrina days. Numerous well-paid administrative positions that never existed in the traditional district are now on the payroll for every charter operator.

Also unclear is the role selective admission schools play in the landscape, and whether they will be expanded going forward. The selective admission schools are also included in the state’s data – skewing the numbers by touting schools as successful which choose to admit only high achievers.

While the reformists have been successful in their goal to privatize the city’s school system, the majority of schools under the RSD are still rated C, D, or F – after more than a decade of unprecedented funding and autonomy.

But there are also genuine improvements, and Dobard touted the latest numbers at the meeting. In 2005, he said, 37 percent of New Orleans students attending a non-failing school, and today, 88 percent of students attending a non-failing school.

In 2004, Dobard said, 54 percent of students graduated on time. In 2015, 75 percent did. In 2004, there was a college enrollment rate of 37 percent. It was 63 percent in 2015.

Dobard said part of the intent of the reunification process will be to “capture those things that allowed us to be a success,” while also ensuring accountability, and equity. “We are very proud of the progress over the past decade,” Lewis said.

All growth and achievements are to be celebrated, without a doubt. However these statistics must always be accompanied with the caveat that measuring the student population of 2004 against the 2016 student population is a faulty comparison – as the demographics and overall population changed significantly following Hurricane Katrina, and it is simply not an “apples to apples” comparison.

But regardless of the ultimate outcome of the experiment, Act 91 puts into action the long awaited return of schools to local, democratic control. And for its proponents, preserving autonomy of the charter schools is a key component. Improving equity among the network of charters was also repeated as a top priority, and has been a point of concern regarding a clear “haves” and “have nots” between different charter operators, and between the OPSB and RSD schools.

While many operators have cited the OPSB of more than a decade ago as a reason they are hesitant to return to its auspices, as Lewis noted at the meeting, “The Orleans Parish School Board is a very different organization than it was before Katrina.”

Lewis called the next 100 days of transitional planning a “very aggressive schedule.”

Comments from the public and BESE members urged strengthening public trust and community engagement, continuing to address the city’s larger problems such as unemployment and crime through improving educational opportunities, and the crucial goal of equitable access for all children to high-performing schools.

This article originally published in the May 30, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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