Einstein Charter to take over Intercultural

Einstein Charter Group Inc. will receive a $1 million grant tied to the turnaround of an academically unacceptable school, an announcement made last week by the New Schools for New Orleans.

The Einstein group, which runs Einstein Charter School in eastern New Orleans, will take over Intercultural Charter School, located just over half a mile away.

The name of the school at 5316 Michoud Blvd., the former site of Intercultural, will be Einstein Extension for the 2013-2014 school year.

Einstein is one of 10 local operators to be awarded the federally funded Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program. Einstein applied for the grant in October. The official announcement from New Schools for New Orleans, which administers the grants, came in a Feb. 5 news release.

The changes for the two eastern New Orleans elementary schools involve the Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board and the two charter operators, in that Einstein is part of the School Board’s district, and the Intercultural Charter School was part of the RSD. Einstein Principal Shawn Toranto called it a “very cooperative endeavor” that was “very child focused.”

At the School Board’s January meeting, the board approved Einstein Charter’s expansion and announced that all current Intercultural students will be guaranteed a seat at the new school, which has a maximum capacity of 500 students.

According to a report by The Lens, in addition to the federal grant, Einstein received an additional $800,000 from New Schools for New Orleans, earmarked to provide bus transportation for students. Intercultural provides bus transportation, while Einstein currently does not. Toranto said bus transportation will continue to be provided for the extension, and that it is something they are looking at for the original Einstein campus.

Toranto lauded the Einstein staff for recognizing every child’s gifts and the extracurricular opportunities offered, including cultural dance, band, theater, art, and a gifted and talented program. She also called the school’s population “beautifully diverse” and “culturally rich.”

For the 2011-2012 school year, Einstein reported a student body that included 63 percent African American, 26 percent Asian and 11 percent Latino.

At Intercultural for the same year, the student body was 70 percent African American, 22 percent Asian and 8 percent Latino.

Toranto said at Einstein, 137 students are in the English as a Second Language classes, and the same language programs and translation services for families will be provided at the extension.

But while Intercultural’s charter contract was not renewed by the state based on academic performance, some critics felt that the plan for Einstein to take over Intercultural was in the works long before December, when it was announced that Intercultural’s board would have its contract terminated June 30.

Cristi Wijngaarde worked as a parent liaison for Intercultural for three years and then worked in the same role for Einstein before resigning about a year ago. With a new principal at Intercultural this year and what she described as a significant turnaround, Wijngaarde said she felt like the school wasn’t given a chance to succeed.

Intercultural’s board Chairwoman Cam-Thanh Tran sent a letter to parents Dec. 12, explaining that the decision was made “based on our School Performance Score of 72.7. The board met with Superintendent Patrick Dobard of RSD to present our case. After an extensive visit, he has made a decision which he believes is fair since we did not reach the required score of 75.”

In the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, Intercultural got passing grades from the state. For the 2010-2011 school year, the school received a School Performance Score of 71.7, then a D before the bench mark for an F was raised from 65 to 75 for the 2011-2012 school year. For the 2011-2012 school year, 41 percent of schools in New Orleans received an F.

Wijngaarde also pointed to a decision made by the RSD to require Intercultural to partner with the for-profit education management organization Edison Schools when it opened. Two years later, Wijngaarde said, the New York-based Edison Schools pulled out, and left Intercultural in debt, struggling to regain its financial footing.

Wijngaarde said that the RSD did not provide any support, and that “they were waiting for Intercultural to fail — they were literally waiting for it to drown.”

Wijngaarde said she met with Toranto in November 2011, and Toranto told Wijngaarde she had been approached by the RSD about the possibility of taking over Intercultural. Toranto said she did not remember when she was first approached by the RSD about working with Intercultural.

She said she would provide the approximate date by email but had not done so as of Wednesday. Asked to confirm if the RSD approached Toranto in November 2011 about working with Intercultural, the RSD responded with the following emailed statement: “Yes — but we approached her about replicating her success at Einstein through the i3 program rather than about Intercultural specifically.”

At an Einstein board meeting in October, the Lens reported, Toranto said the RSD had “actively” asked the group to manage an additional school, though Intercultural was not named at that meeting. When the Lens contacted Intercultural following the board meeting, Kathleen Carlin, secretary of Intercultural’s board of directors, told the Lens that, “We are anticipating getting a passing score and applying to renew our charter.”

Wijngaarde said that the Intercultural community is not entirely opposed to the changes but has concerns about translation services, the lack of recess at Einstein and the cost of purchasing new uniforms, which are priced at $20 for shirts and $20 for bottoms. Each student typically needs a minimum of three sets.

Parents also had questions about the facilities, Wijngaarde said, which she described as being in poor condition. Toranto said she does not know about any planned renovations and has not yet toured the extension’s facilities but plans to soon.

Wijngaarde said the Intercultural teachers have also expressed concern about their futures.

Toranto said that Glendayln Lewis, part of her current leadership team, will take over as principal at the extension, and Toranto will oversee both schools. Toranto said that all Intercultural employees will have the opportunity to apply for jobs with Einstein.

In order to maintain the i3 grant, Einstein must meet milestones designed to monitor student achievement, growth and expansion readiness. The grant also requires an open-enrollment policy.