Two charter schools OK’d

Staffing at Jefferson Parish alternative schools to be cut

Measures to add two charters, hire Teach for America teachers and cut staff at alternative schools all passed at Jefferson Parish Public School System meeting Thursday night, but not without some discussion.

The board approved a memorandum of understanding between the JPPSS and the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Building Excellent Schools to launch two new charters — one in 2014 and one in 2015. Rather than have the state start its own charters in the parish, Superintendent James Meza said that it was best for the district to actively start their own high-performing, high-poverty charters, just one piece of his goal to eliminate D and F schools under his tenure.

At a much slower pace than in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish has approved only three of the 20 applications submitted. Meza said that the approach has been “very selective and very judicious” and that charter schools are just one part of multiple paths to improve school performance. Meza said the state will match $250,000 from the district to begin the process.

Building Excellent Schools specializes in recruiting and training leaders to start and sustain charter schools in low-income communities. The group worked with two charters in New Orleans, Akili Academy and New Orleans College Prep, and has helped to start 54 schools nationwide.

Board member Cedric Floyd said he wanted to make sure that extra resources were going to traditional schools that are low-performing and that he didn’t want to let someone else do the job the district can do best. “I don’t think charter schools have got a special sauce or some magic when it comes to educating kids,” Floyd said.

Board member Mike Delesdenier said doesn’t see the decision as pro- or anti-charter, but rather as a way to give the district more control by creating their own charters.

Board member Etta Licciardi said she would like to see the charter operator work with the existing student population in the low-performing school that it enters.

Board member Ray St. Pierre, who steadfastly opposes charters, was the single dissenting vote.

The board voted to expand its partnership with Teach For America and The New Teacher Project by bringing in 40 to 60 TFA corps members and 25 to 35 New Teacher Project fellows over the next two years.

“Our partnerships with TFA and TNTP are among several different strategies we have to bring talent from all across the country into our schools,” said Meza in a news release. “TFA and TNTP will also help us recruit more diverse, bilingual candidates in the hard-to-staff areas of mathematics, science, English as a second language and special education.”

Meza stressed the need for bilingual teachers with the district’s quickly growing Hispanic population. He said the decision was based on requests from principals and as part of the strategy to fill the 200 to 300 projected vacancies as teachers retire and resign. Floyd stressed the value of certified teachers with decades of experience and raised questions about the probability of the TFA teachers staying in the community past their two-year contract. Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch urged the board to also put resources toward bringing back the training program that was cut, in which master teachers work closely with new teachers. The board also approved staffing reductions at the alternative schools. At Westbank Community School, the staff of 44 will be reduced by 14 people. At Martyn Alternative, the staff of 35 will lose nine people. The cuts include teachers, office staff, para-professionals, social workers and custodial staff.

Michele Blouin-Williams, JPPSS chief human capital officer, said that the decisions were made based on mid-year student enrollment and a determination that the schools were overstaffed. She said Westbank had about 90 students and Martyn had just under 40. The schools, attended by students with behavior problems at traditional schools or who are serving out-of-school suspensions, have a transient student body. Blouin-Williams said that the staffing structure takes the fluctuation into account.

Munch urged the board to make sure the schools continue to have sufficient staff in place for a student population that requires more supervision than other schools.

Eugene Folse Jr., a teacher at Martyn, expressed concern about reducing the quality of education and told the board he had been injured several times, including being kicked in the back by a student and getting bitten by a student.

Blouin-Williams said teacher contracts will be honored, and other employees will be highly considered for openings at other schools. The meeting began with the presentation of the Posse Foundation full-tuition scholarships to five JPPSS students. The students are Tuyet Dam. of L.W. Higgins High School, Mohammad Elaasar, of Haynes Academy, Peter Nguyen, of Thomas Jefferson Magnet High School, and Farhana Chaudry and Gabriel Rodriguez, of Bonnabel High School. The scholarships are worth about $175,000 each. Four of the winners will be attending Tulane University.