Charter school changes outlined

A meeting held for parents Monday night at Crocker Arts and Technology School promised a brighter future for the students with a new charter operator but left some parents and education activists saddened by the staff upheaval and wary of an educational landscape where they see change as the only constant.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided last month that the current Crocker board, formed by community members following Hurricane Katrina, would not be allowed to continue running the school because the growth targets set by the state had not been met. In addition to Crocker, Pride College Preparatory Academy, Intercultural Charter School and Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School lost their charter contracts

The meeting was the first in a series of parent meetings regarding closures and changes in operators at a number of Recovery School District schools for the 2013-2014 school year. The changes were first announced at an RSD news conference on Dec. 20 and involve 12 schools across New Orleans.

New Orleans College Prep, the charter organization that currently runs Cohen College Prep and Sylvanie Williams Elementary School, will take over at Crocker next fall.

The new school will keep the full name of Lawrence D. Crocker, as well as the “Arts and Technology” component, but will add “College Prep,” said Ben Kleban, CEO of College Prep.

RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson began the meeting by detailing how far schools in New Orleans have come and how far they still have to go. The role of the RSD will remain the same in providing oversight and holding New Orleans College Prep to the same standards, Peterson said. He said Crocker’s current board was being cooperative in working to ensure a smooth transition.

All current students will be guaranteed a seat at the new Crocker, Peterson said. The meeting also included a presentation about the OneApp streamlined enrollment process, in which next year all RSD and direct-run Orleans Parish School Board will participate. The applications will be made available Jan. 14. Parents also will be able to apply online for the first time this year, and improvements to the process have been made to keep siblings who want to attend the same school together, RSD Student Enrollment Director Gabriela Fighetti said.

Current Crocker board chairwoman Gisela Jackson told the story of returning after Hurricane Katrina and seeing that there was no place for children in the neighborhood to attend school. She and several other members of the community then got together and made the commitment to reopen the school. The Crocker students have moved four times in the past five years, finally finding what they thought was a permanent home in the brand new building at 2300 General Taylor St.

After all the moves, “We did not want to see the kids moved again,” Jackson said. “This is the school we fought to rebuild and fought to grow.”

However, because of “how the state grades schools,” Crocker simply wasn’t able to meet the standards, Jackson said. She said she wanted to dispel the myth that Crocker was going away and stressed the new partnership with College Prep as the best option for moving forward.

Kleban said that the current staff will have the opportunity to reapply and will be given full consideration, but he said that he could not commit to keeping everyone. “We will make the best decisions we can based on performance,” he said.

Kleban said that he would be willing to bring Jackson onto the College Prep Board.

Kleban also said that Crocker would continue to have open enrollment system and pointed to his current schools as having a higher enrollment of students with special needs than other schools in the district. He also said the arts and technology programs will continue.

The building is currently shared by Encore Academy, but after another year Encore will be required find a new space, giving Crocker an opportunity to expand, Kleban said.

Kleban also introduced the school’s new principal, Amanda Aiken, who is from New York and went to school and taught in Georgia before working for College Prep in an administrative role over the past two years.

The meeting broke out into groups to address various questions from parents and the community, though there were only a handful of parents in attendance.

Some education activists at the meeting expressed concern that more change may not always be in the best interest of the children.

Lucia Parker, who has four children at Crocker, left the meeting in tears after telling Jackson she was very unhappy about the change. “It seems like education in this city is like big business and my children will not be a part of that business,” she told Jackson after the meeting.

Parker said her children love Crocker and are thriving at the school.

“The principal is wonderful — the kids love her,” Parker said of current Principal Anna Charmaine Robertson.

Parker said she and other parents followed Robertson from trailers to buildings with lead paint and toilets that didn’t work because of the leadership, and because she believed her children were getting high-quality education.

“The principal and assistant principal didn’t walk out on the kids, and that’s the thanks they get?” Parker said. “Just because of test scores?”

A Gentilly resident, Parker said she could have put her children in a higher-rated school in her neighborhood, but she was devoted to Robertson and the Crocker community. Now, Parker said she is frustrated and angry to learn that after just half of a year in their new home, the leadership will change.

A meeting will be held Wednesday at James. W. Johnson and Murray Henderson Elementary schools, both at 5:30 p.m., to discuss their closures. On Thursday, meetings will be held at 5:30 p.m. at Pride College Prep, which will have a new charter operator, Benjamin Mays Preparatory School, which will close, and Paul B. Habans Elementary School, which will have a new charter operator.