Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard tried to ease the concerns of Walter S. Cohen High School students, parents and supporters at a community meeting Monday night that followed the second day students walked out to protest the school’s sudden transition to a charter school and faculty firings.
Senior Terrell Major said rumors that a charter operator, Future Is Now, would be taking over started circulating Thursday. Students knew as much — or more — than the teachers, he said. Those rumors, along with the termination of Principal Gavin Lewis and a number of teachers, were confirmed later that day in an assembly, students said.
“Could the announcement and changes have been better rolled out? Absolutely,” Dobard said Monday evening. “Could we have talked to students earlier? Absolutely,” he said.
But Dobard stressed that he decisions were made to “ensure that we do the right thing for the kids” and that Cohen students be held to the highest academic standards possible.
“It came out of nowhere,” Major said.
Fired world history teacher Thomas Cass said he was “dumbfounded,” by the announcement. There were some discipline issues, Cass said, but nothing that would warrant his own termination and such a fast-moving change. “We were getting there,” Cass said, “I was just starting to get close with the kids, and now they rip that apart.”
Dobard released the following statement Monday evening:
“The Recovery School District has made a change in leadership at Walter L. Cohen High School. Today, Future Is Now has assumed management of the 11th and 12th grade direct-run program. This decision was made following multiple meetings with the school administration, an intense review of instructional practices and an evaluation of the school’s learning environment. These changes are aimed at providing a high-quality education, rigorous classroom instruction, and a challenging academic environment for students. To better ensure students are prepared to attain a college degree or succeed in a professional career, we must create a culture of high expectations for students, faculty, and school administrators. Students should return to class Tuesday morning and return to learning.”
Earlier in the day, a group of students held a news conference, during which they read a list of their demands in front of a sign that said, “We will not be bought or sold.”
Their demands included acknowledgement of the difference in the condition of facilities between Cohen and New Orleans College Prep, a charter school housed in the same building. The students also demanded that all faculty be retained.
RSD spokesman Barry Landry said eight teachers would be retained and that staffing conversations are continuing the week to make final determinations.
“We are here to fight for our schools, our teachers, our administration and our right to graduate on time,” said senior class president Meghan McKinnon.
At the end of last year, Major said, the school fired teachers and brought in new teachers and a new principal at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. Now, after six weeks, Major said, they’ve started to bond with the new teachers.
“At first we didn’t like the new teachers. But now we’ve developed a bond,” he said, adding that he had “concern with their livelihoods.” Major said depending on what happens, he might have to pursue his education elsewhere. “We can’t prosper in this hectic environment.”
Dobard said that Cohen students are welcome to transfer, but they will be expected in class today, otherwise the absence will be considered unexcused.
Gideon Stein, president of Future is Now, said that the decisions at Cohen were made in the context of a “very condensed time line,” due to both “internal and external factors.”
“FIN hopes to conduct significant outreach to the community to explain FIN’s plan and to get input from the community,” Stein said. After a year, FIN will move forward with decisions based primarily on enrollment. He said that Cohen students are welcome to enroll in FIN’s other locally operated school, John McDonogh.
Community activist Norbert Rome said that it wasn’t necessarily the reform that was at issue, but rather the “method of reform.” Rome said he didn’t understand why the decisions were made without the involvement of the students, current administration or community.
Whatever the problems were, Rome said, “they never told us.” Rome said he was concerned about the lack of documentation on the problems and what was done to remediate them.
“We should have community involvement whatever school system is chosen,” Rome said. “It’s the community’s money,” Rome said.