RSD closures frustrating

Parents, educators angered

About 10 New Orleans schools under the Recovery School District are being shuttered or are having their governing board replaced by a new charter operator, leaving parents, students and faculty faced with uncertain futures for the 2013-2014 school year.

Closing low-performing schools has been a key part of the educational reform agenda in New Orleans. But for students and parents, the “close and replace” model can hurt students with the greatest needs, said Brian Beabout, assistant professor of educational leadership, counseling and foundations at the University of New Orleans.

For RSD schools, the closures and replacements involve Crocker Arts & Technology, Pride College Prep, Intercultural Charter School, Benjamin Mays Preparatory, Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, Murray Henderson, H.C. Schaumburg Elementary, Abramson Elementary, Paul B. Habans Elementary and James W. Johnson Elementary.

Mays Prep, Henderson, Abramson and Johnson will close entirely, while the others will be turned over to new charter operators.

The logic of regularly eliminating the lowest-performing schools is compelling, Beabout said, but some of the holes in that logic can only be seen by parents, students and faculty directly affected by the closures and replacements.

Characteristics parents look for in defining a “good school” do not always match those the state uses.

For the state, the focus is increasingly on state-calculated scores and the school’s financial health.

The nonacademic aspects that parents look for are harder to define and cannot necessarily be evaluated through numbers, Beabout said.

Parents want the best education for their children, but they also care about who is teaching their children, the culture of the school, extracurricular activities, additional services available for children with special needs and the relationships built over time between students, parents, teachers and administrators, Beabout said.

At Mays Prep, parents and faculty expressed outrage at the RSD’s decision to close the school at a January meeting held to help the parents find a new school for their children.

Mays teacher Patricia Walker said the school would have met the state’s goals had it not been pressured to take additional grades and students from Carver Elementary School.

Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent of the RSD, said Mays was not forced to take in new students and that other schools also have taken in new students.

All are held to the same academic standards regardless of the number of new students, she said.

“This is his family,” Mays parent Kenisha Nelson said at the meeting, referring to her 7-year-old son who has emotional problems and found support and stability at Mays. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if he can’t go back to Mays Prep.”

Other parents shared similar experiences, of transferring from school to school before finding a loving and nurturing environment at Mays, where their children started to perform better academically and emotionally, especially those who needed extra attention.

Another Mays teacher, Jenny Langkammer, was close to tears at hearing the frustration from parents and fellow teachers.

“The staff is incredible,” Langkammer said of Mays. “I’ve never worked with such incredible teachers. They look at the whole kid — the emotional well-being, not just the academics.”

Langkammer said Mays was the only school where she would send her own children.

She said she had worked at four schools over the past several years and felt that Mays was one of the few that was completely honest in terms of testing and reporting its test scores.

Mays “plays by the rules and does things the right way — for the kids’ sake and not for the administration’s sake,” Langkammer said.

Langkammer said she had worked at other schools that did “whatever they could to stay open.”

The RSD did not respond to repeated requests over several weeks for information about any reports and/or investigations into schools cheating to raise their test scores.

Peterson said the decision to close any school is a difficult one, but schools are accountable to high standards, and Mays did not meet those standards.

At some of the other schools that did not meet the state’s goals and did not have their charters renewed, a relationship was formed between the current board and charter operators to take over the existing building and student body, if parents elected for their students to stay.

But for Mays, Peterson said there was no time to bring in an approved charter operator. Peterson pointed out that Mays parents will have the highest priority in the OneApp single application to all RSD and OPSB direct-run schools. Peterson said he was confident the Mays students will find a better academic setting.

But not all parents feel that they are benefitting from the much-touted expansion of school choice, especially lower-income families and those whose preference is to attend a quality school close to home, Beabout said. The process of finding a new school can create fear and anxiety for parents, he said, emotions evident at the meetings held by the RSD in January at the 10 schools undergoing changes.

At Johnson Elementary, which will close at the end of this year, parents are only guaranteed a spot at another school, Banneker Elementary, which also has an F letter grade.

In eastern New Orleans, Jacob Cohen, assistant director of Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, is concerned about multiple closures, dwindling options for parents and geography that presents transportation barriers in terms of sending students to other neighborhoods.

In addition, Cohen said the cost of making a change shows the gap between those making decisions and the families affected by them.

For a low-income family, the expense of buying a new uniform can be a significant hardship, especially for multiple children who have changed schools multiple times. Cohen said that’s not a concern he has seen addressed.

Special education is feeling the effects of reform and the intense pressure to raise test scores and academic achievement, Beabout said. Individualized Education Plans, required for students with special needs, take time, energy and resources, and depend largely on the relationships built between parents and educators, he said.

For kids in the middle of the road, switching schools can have a limited effect, and the move can better provide the intended benefit to students if the offerings at a new school are indeed better, Beabout said. But for the kids who are most at risk — whether academically, emotionally or behaviorally, “When ties are broken, those are the ones who suffer the most,” Beabout said. “That’s a scary piece of the close-and-replace model,” he said.