Six schools at risk of closure due to poor performance on state evaluations pitched the Orleans Parish School Board Tuesday (Oct. 17) night: please let us keep our charters.

These charter schools — five of which are up for contract renewal, and the sixth for a contract extension — are expected to fall short of the NOLA Public Schools’ regular standards this school year. Now, they’re going through a comprehensive evaluation process in an effort to hold onto their charters. That involves extensive reviews, site visits and chances to present data and information supporting the extension or renewal of their contracts.

Principals and directors from the schools on Tuesday told the board that they were doing their best to bring up their state-issued performance grades, which are largely based on standardized test scores, in the face of major obstacles like the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Ida. The schools have built new programs in recent years to help students succeed academically in spite of pandemic setbacks, school officials said, and are meeting general compliance requirements and making progress by other district metrics.

Although this year’s grades aren’t public yet, Orleans Parish School Board already has estimates showing that six schools up for contract renewals and extensions are expected to fare poorly when state scores are released: Phillis Wheatley Community School, KIPP East, Living School, L.B. Landry High School, Robert Russa Moton Charter School and Esperanza Charter School. Esperanza is the only charter seeking an extension.

“Esperanza is committed to the journey of New Orleans students. We know where we are, and we know there is difficult, intentional work ahead,” said Natasha Doughty, principal of Esperanza Charter School. “Our community of students, families and staff remain strong and bonded together.”

This school year, a total of 16 charter schools are up for contract renewal, with terms ranging from three to ten years depending on the school’s academic, financial and operational performance. Six other schools are now going through the extension process, the routine evaluation during the fourth year of a charter’s initial contract. (Esperanza Charter School opened in 2007 but was part of the state-run Recovery School District for about a decade before transferring to the Orleans Parish School Board.)

Renewals are mostly contingent on a school performance renewal index — the average of a school’s last two yearly performance scores issued by the Louisiana Department of Education. Schools that are expected to get F’s on the state’s A through F letter-grade scale face greater scrutiny before the district and must clear more hurdles if they want their contracts renewed.

“In a beautiful world, especially for Esperanza, the state data comes out and they get a D, and they’re automatically eligible for an extension,” said Rafael Simmons, the NOLA Public Schools district’s chief portfolio innovation and accountability officer. 

If a school does end up getting a failing score this year, then the district’s superintendent, Avis Williams, will consider all the data and information amassed over the evaluation process and make recommendations to the board next month on whether to keep the school in the system.

So what happens if the district doesn’t renew or extend an operator’s contract? 

Most likely, the students will transfer to another school after the end of this school year. The empty school buildings would probably join the district’s portfolio of blighted, surplus properties around the city, Simmons said. The operator can also consolidate with other operators to improve or voluntarily surrender its charter.

At Tuesday’s meeting, people filled the school board’s meeting room and spilled into the main hallway. The vast majority of the crowd came in support of Esperanza, a school located in Mid-City that boasts the city’s first “50/50” Spanish-English dual-language immersion program. 

Living School student Kyla Jones was also among the many people who gathered Tuesday to plead with district officials to keep their schools open. 

“It is not just a school — it is a safe place for all the students,” Jones said of the New Orleans East school. “They taught me how to grow as a person, they taught me community, they taught me how to actually love myself and actually push myself forward. … I just want to ask for mercy because I really love my school.”

A changing process?

This process will likely be very different for charter schools seeking extension or renewal this time next year.

At its committee meeting earlier Tuesday, the Orleans Parish School Board also heard about proposed policy changes that would affect how the district handles operating agreement renewals and instances of noncompliance with charter agreements, board policy or state or federal law. The suggested policy tweaks follow the board’s approval in August of a new Charter School Accountability Framework, which now includes a new tier of noncompliance and updated eligible term lengths for renewal, among other changes. 

Earlier on, the updated framework also updated how it measures the school performance renewal index and increased the weight of progress, which is part of the state-issued school performance score. 

Anne-Lise McCarver, director of school accountability for the district, said many changes were made to simplify the process — including renewal timeline, standards for an automatic renewal, accountability standards and eligibility for comprehensive evaluation. 

McCarver said the district is updating the policy so that academic growth and progress are prioritized in the renewal process. 

The renewal standards approved in the framework would apply to schools facing renewal beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. 

Simmons said the district’s new local accountability formula to measure school achievement is more streamlined: “This is the last time we’re talking about quartiles, because it’s a little wonky, and it’s complicated,” he told Verite News on Tuesday.

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...