|Written by Kelly Leahy|
Before Katrina there were only four charter schools in New Orleans. Today they outnumber traditional public schools two to one, exceeding 60 in total. That number continues to grow. nola baby & family explores the reasons behind the dramatic shift to charter schools. We also provide insight into why some charter schools are so successful, and look at the non-standard admissions process.
a primer on charters
Charter schools receive public funding but operate independently from many of the laws and regulations governing traditional public schools. These schools can be established by various entities including universities, businesses, teachers or parent groups. A school is granted a five-year charter by the local school board or by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) after a lengthy application process.
Each charter school is governed by an elected board, which has independent control over the day to day operations of that school. While each charter is held accountable for student achievement, they are not required to use state-approved text books and have control over the length of their school day and yearly calendar—as long as they meet the state minimum requirements. As a result, school days will vary across the city.
Public charter schools in NOLA are run under three different entities: The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and The Recovery School District (RSD). Before Katrina, five failing schools were removed from the auspices of the Orleans Parish School Board and placed under the Recovery School District. In November 2005, another 107 low-performing schools were transferred to the RSD. The Orleans Parish School Board retained control over some of its schools like Lusher Charter School, Audubon Charter School and Ben Franklin High School, each of which had applied for charter status after the storm.
KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts is one of the many KIPP charter schools that opened in New Orleans for the 2006-07 school year. However, KIPP was working with New Orleans students who had evacuated to Houston as early as the fall of 2005. “KIPP,” which stands for “Knowledge is Power Program,” was founded in Houston in 1994. From one fifth grade class in the Lone Star State, the program grew to 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia teaching more than 21,000 students in underserved communities. In the fall of 2005, KIPP saw the need for educating the evacuated children of New Orleans who were still living in the Astrodome and shelters around Houston. The organization secured an empty school, recruited some evacuated teachers and opened its doors.
Principal Kyle Schaffer was one of these displaced teachers who began anew with KIPP. He first moved to New Orleans in June 2005 with the Teach for America program. During his summers he attended KIPP’s summer school program at NYU and earned a Masters in School Leadership. He became assistant principal of the elementary school in 2007 and principal in 2009.
KIPP McDonogh’s standardized test scores are significantly higher than other schools within the Recovery School District, and its mathematics scores are higher than the state average. Schaffer attributes the school’s success to its staff and adds, “I think that we just have an incredible team of teachers that keep coming back to ‘how can we make this better, how can we push it?’”
One way that KIPP pushes its students is by instituting high expectations and setting new goals every year, according to Schaffer. In fact, KIPP prefers the word “scholars” over “students” and works not only on academics but character building as well. Students and faculty eat breakfast together at 7:40 am and move onto a morning meeting where a theme of the month is discussed. “Responsibility” was one of those recent themes and New Orleans’ own Irvin Mayfield was highlighted as a “hero of responsibility.”
Inviting a jazz musician like Mayfield is no surprise for a school that offers over 90 minutes of arts instruction per day. Students at KIPP McDonogh 15 have the opportunity to perform in jazz ensemble, orchestra, visual and dramatic arts, and enhance their instruction with frequent field trips in and around the French Quarter.
varying admissions standards
KIPP McDonogh 15 offers open-enrollment, meaning that they will take any student who applies until all open spots are filled. They have two of what Schaffer refers to as “special education gurus” who have helped to develop a comprehensive way to serve students with special needs at their school. Schaffer adds, “we are determined to take anybody that comes to us. We will figure out a way for every single scholar. We have a number of special needs kids that are thriving at KIPP.”
The vast majority of charter schools in New Orleans have open-enrollment; however, a handful of schools don’t offer it. Lusher Charter School, for example, gives admission priority to children who reside within a small district around the school and requires all other students to submit to a scoring matrix that includes artistic talent, prior classroom grades, and standardized test scores.
Zijazo, mother to Lusher student Zia, recalls that her daughter “was required to take a test to determine her reading [and] math levels” because they lived out side of Lusher’s district. Zijazo found the application process to be very straight forward but not without hiccups. “Due to the high number of applicants,” Zijazo recounts, “my daughter was placed in a lottery and luckily she was chosen.”
Ben Franklin High School also utilizes a scoring matrix in its admittance procedures. Ranked number 27 nationally among “ America’s Best High Schools” by U.S. News and World Report in 2010 and the “best overall school in Louisiana” by Business Week, Ben Franklin has a strong reputation for excellence in education. This reputation and the opportunity to help shape the City’s education system are what brought Dr. Timothy Rusnak to the position of principal at Ben Franklin in 2008.
The scoring matrix at Ben Franklin is so strict that the school is not yet at capacity. “We are clearly focused on academics,” Principal Rusnak says, “and we don’t apologize for that.” Ben Franklin follows what Rusnak refers to as a “European system” of education which eschews the idea that schools adapt to the child. Tutoring sessions are offered but “it is up to the student to meet the admissions and objective of the school.”
With so many Charter schools to choose from, the process can be mind boggling. When Jolynn Huntly King was looking for a school for her two daughters—Julie and Mia Rose, ages 13 and eight respectively—she looked at schools in her Uptown neighborhood. After applying to Lusher and Audubon, Jolynn opted for the latter.
“I love the small school feeling that Audubon has. The French School curriculum and the presence of French nationals add an extra dose of multiculturalism,” she says. Audubon receives a great many more applications every year than there are spots and names are thrown into a lottery system. Jolynn found that the process “can be a real nail biter.”
Like many successful charter schools, Audubon requires parental involvement. Each family is asked to log 20 hours of service. Zijazo says that Lusher has a similar requirement and adds, “I truly believe this is what makes Lusher so successful. Being a public school teacher myself, I must stress the importance of parents being positively involved in their child’s education.”
Jolynn cites the KIPP schools with their extended school days as offering alternatives to “help a community of working parents.” As a parent of two charter school students, she states that, “Although it can be a struggle and a lot of work to be a parent in a New Orleans public [charter] school, it is well worth the effort for the experience in diversity it brings our children and the good it does for the community.”
Though children may now travel across the City to attend the school of their choosing, Jolynn offers that “charter schools have the opportunity to become the bridge that brings the community back to public schools and then eventually back to neighborhood schools.” In her opinion, “New Orleans public schools are improving as a whole because of the charter school movement.”
Kelly Leahy is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to nola baby & family. She has two young daughters—one of whom is enrolled at Audubon Charter School.