Mays parents urge OPSB to take over school

Parents of students from Benjamin Mays Preparatory School made an impassioned plea to the Orleans Parish School Board on Tuesday night to take over their school, which is scheduled to close at the end of the year.

The Louisiana Board of Secondary and Elementary Education made the decision to pull the school’s charter contract in December, citing high state standards, and the school having a persistent failing grade and not shown sufficient improvement.

School Board President Ira Thomas said he had met with the Mays community and was very concerned about the children having to be bused across the city to attend a new school.

Parent Kenisha Nelson said she has been contacting BESE and the Recovery School District, which oversees the charter school, every week since January to request a meeting to express the community’s concern that closing the school will leave the Desire neighborhood without an elementary school.

No one from the RSD or BESE would meet with the parents and community who desperately want to seek options other than closure, she said.

Nelson told the board the story of her son. She said she pulled her son out of a KIPP school because his father had just died and the people at KIPP were not able to address his needs.

At Mays, Nelson said, her son, who was diagnosed with ADHD, is a “straight A” student and reading two years above his grade level.

Nelson tearfully told the board how hard it was to look at her 7-year-old son every day and see his disappointment about a possible school change.

“He says ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t go back.’ It tears me apart,” she said. “Each day gets closer to the end.”

Several parents went before the board to describe a family-like environment at Mays where the students, teachers, and parents were very happy with the progress the school was making.

Parent Latisha Williams noted that Mays took on additional students from Carver Elementary, which brought its scores down.

“It’s not fair,” Williams said. “They say failing, but we didn’t feel like we were failing.”

Williams said her daughter, who is dyslexic, is reading above grade level and has been on the honor roll each year since starting at Mays.

School Board member Nolan Marshall noted that he ran for office on the premise that “It takes parent and community involvement to make a school successful,” and that it was telling that Mays was a school where teachers and administrators send their children.

Marshall requested that interim Orleans Parish Superintendent Stan Smith give the board options for keeping Mays open and continuing its movement “in the right direction.”

Smith said that the RSD had communicated to him that the facilities were going to be used as a swing space for another school undergoing renovations. Smith said the OPSB did not have any other spaces in its inventory at the time to accommodate the 350 Mays students.

Thomas cited the example of the OPSB taking over Priestly Charter High School from the charter operator and turning it into an OPSB direct-run school in 2011.

“We have the ability to go into a challenging and controversial situation and stabilize it,” Thomas said.

Thomas and board member Cynthia Cade promised to discuss taking over Mays with the RSD.

Under the state’s school accountability program, Mays has a school performance score of 53.3 and is rated as an “F” school. A new policy approved by BESE requires schools to score at least 75 out of 200 to avoid a failing grade.

Close to 50 parents and students from Bethune Elementary School also showed up at the meeting to plead with the School Board for more space, including the possibility of moving to new facilities. Parents cited the academic accomplishments of the OPSB direct-run school in Hollygrove, but said that it does not have the room needed to grow and expand on its success.

Parent Jamon Barrow cited a long waiting list for students seeking admission to Bethune. “We have done so much with less — imagine what we can do with more,” Barrow said.

Smith praised the school’s academic achievement.

Also Tuesday, School Board member Woody Koppel made an addition to the board’s agenda by motioning to approve an RFQ (request for quotation) for a private firm to start the search for a new superintendent.

Koppel said the firm must have extensive experience in educational systems, conduct a nationwide search and have a proven track record of success.

Several members of the community spoke in support of the RFQ, emphasizing transparency, community involvement and finding the best candidate for the job.

Xavier University student Kaleb Hill told the board that he had been mentoring two students who didn’t show an interest in their education.

Hill asked that the board consider a superintendent candidate well versed in the city’s culture and history. The stakes are high, Hill noted, saying that “most young black males who don’t excel in school end up in jail.”

The motion to issue the RFQ passed unanimously, though Cade noted that it could be costly.