If the charter school movement in New Orleans brings to mind smiling children and leaping test scores, there is also a brutal Darwinism to it: Fail to raise those test scores fast enough, and you lose your school.
And right now, the charter group that runs John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue is engaged in a struggle for survival, putting a question mark next to one of the city’s higher-profile turnaround efforts — it has been the subject of a dramatic series on Oprah Winfrey’s TV network — and the millions of dollars slated to go into a renovation of the school’s century-old building.
The man in charge of that charter group, Steve Barr, still sounds confident. He points out Future Is Now, his organization, has been running the campus for only a year. Pupils are arriving as freshmen far behind grade level in basic reading and math skills, and righting the ship will take time.
“We’ve got a baseline to go up from, so that’s what we’re doing,” Barr said. “It’s going to take a few years to reap the benefits.”
Yet Barr is facing a set of hard numbers — on his balance sheet, on enrollment and on exam results — that suggest the school has yet to turn a corner, at least not by any measure that can be taken outside of the schoolhouse.
When school performance scores, ratings put out by the Louisiana Department of Education that wrap up test scores and graduation rates, came out last week, they showed John McDonogh among the dwindling number of schools in Orleans Parish whose scores put them in the “failing” range, though because it has been operating for only a year under Future Is Now, it doesn’t technically receive a letter grade.
The state just overhauled its grading system, making direct comparisons difficult. Going by the old scale, John McDonogh’s performance score for the 2012-13 school year dropped from the year before.
On the new scale, John McDonogh earned a 9.3 out of 150, a deep hole to climb out of, given that anything under 50 is considered unacceptable.
The only other schools scoring that low actively market themselves as alternative high schools for students who need to catch up on credits or have struggled in traditional high school environments.
All of this could raise painful questions for John McDonogh’s leaders and the community members who have fought to preserve a school close to phasing out of existence just a few years ago.
Charter schools, publicly funded but run by private nonprofit groups such as Future Is Now, have to clear certain hurdles to continue operating. In the fall 2015, the group will have to go before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to have its charter extended by another year. If it clears that hurdle, it will go back for a full review the next year, but it will have to have lifted its performance score above 50 by then or else persuade board members to cut the school some slack.
So if Future Is Now can’t lift the school’s performance off the floor, will the state bring in another operator, given that low enrollment has contributed to its problems? And if there isn’t another operator, what becomes of the FEMA dollars slated to be used to remake the school’s historic campus?
State Education Superintendent John White, who makes recommendations to BESE about charter renewals, gave an unusually blunt response to questions about John McDonogh’s performance thus far.
“Future Is Now took on the hardest challenge in turning around John McDonogh High School,” he said, but, “at present, the school’s academic performance is not on the right track.”
He added other struggling high schools in New Orleans have seen “dramatic progress” in the past few years, and “In each case, BESE and the Recovery School District had to make hard decisions.”
“If there is no progress at John Mac,” he continued, “we’ll make another hard decision. We’re going to get this right.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing John McDonogh, aside from the challenges that face high-poverty high schools in any city, has been the struggle to bring enough students into the building.
Barr said enrollment is hovering at about 315; it would take 450 or 500 students to put the school on a solid financial footing, given that Louisiana funds schools on a per-pupil basis.
That shortfall could make it more difficult to turn things around academically. In the past few weeks, the nonprofit board that manages the school has had to contemplate firing one of the school’s two principals in order to bring costs within budget.
Instead, three other staff members were laid off and everyone took a 20 percent pay cut, Barr said, which means he will have to raise another $400,000 in donations this year instead of nearly $1 million.
Still, Marvin Thompson, who serves as principal for the sophomores, juniors and seniors, sounds as hopeful as ever. He has help this year from a second principal focused on the freshman. He won’t have to split his time between John McDonogh and Walter L. Cohen High School, which the Recovery School District asked him to help run last year. And he said he has begun adding ACT preparation and Advanced Placement courses.
Thompson and Barr both stress they spent the first year trying to instill a culture of higher expectations and raise attendance rates at John McDonogh. A rising performance score will come later, they insist.
Thompson said he isn’t worried that the pay cut will hurt morale. “We’ve got a group of people who are real dedicated to these students,” he said. “I don’t know too many people who come to work for the paycheck.”