NOLA charter schools: favoritism with community & parents shut out

Karran Harper Royal, long time parent advocate and one of the founding members of Parents Across America – New Orleans, reports from the front lines of school privatization, where already 75 percent of the public schools have been converted to charters, and possibly all the remaining public schools run by the Recovery School District will be charters within two years:

I’ve been in so many meetings day and night with various community groups fighting off Recovery School District Superintendent John White and charter school vultures.

Several local communities have applied for and have been denied charters for their community schools. This process began shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when several of us attempted to be part of the reforms coming to our city with the state takeover of our the majority of our schools. For years, myself included, we were kept busy serving on steering committees to help our schools. Initially, we were promised that these schools would be community-driven schools and we did not have to charter them.

Former RSD superintendent Paul Vallas promised me and my community this over and over when we pressed him to comply with what was written in the Walton Family Foundation grant he received for supporting our community’s schools.   We were told that if we wanted that type of power in the school we had to apply for a charter for the school.  The Recovery School District received 6 million dollars from the Walton Family Foundation  to help us plan and drive what happens at our schools.  The RSD squandered the money on their consultants and many of us are still shut out of the process.

Well, I’d seen how our local community groups were being denied, so I didn’t want to go that route. I had already seen two groups get turned down for charters twice, so I was skeptical of applying and sought a different arrangement for Greater Gentilly High School, the school we were trying to create in my neighborhood.

Ironically, I started working on this school three years before my son would enter high school.  This school would not exist if I had not gotten with my neighbors and submitted a proposal for this school, Greater Gentilly High School, which is two blocks from my house. I wanted my son to go to school in his neighborhood for the first time in his life.  He had attended a magnet school across town, but after Katrina that school was turned into a charter, without any community input.

I tried to choose the kind of school  our neighborhood  school would become by proposing the school in the first place, by serving on the steering committee and even after being fooled into believing we could have a voice in that school, I even tried to work out a deal with an existing charter to preserve what kind of school that school would become.  All of that has fallen apart and the school is a charter school and is not following the model that my community proposed.  Now my son gets on a bus in front of this school at 6:28 every morning to go 11 miles away to school.

Other groups, mostly Alumni groups, have experienced similar fates. The project officer of the Walton Grant seemed to go along with Vallas walking all over us by siding with Vallas when I contacted him about the changes Vallas was making without our input.  Another community group, after being denied their charter three times, finally agreed to partner with a charter organization and a few others are still struggling for control of their community’s schools. For the last two years I’ve been trying to get these community groups to come together. Well, it’s finally happening, and I’ve been in countless meetings over the past three months with these groups. We continue to work together and are now beginning to speak out with a collective voice.

Why is it  so important, that community members be allowed to charter their own schools?  At this point, chartering the school is the only way for there to be any real community voice in the running of our local schools.  John White, the head of the Recovery School District has made it clear that he intends to charter every Recovery School District (RSD)-run public school remaining in the city.  It looks like there may be only about five non-charter schools left in  the RSD in New Orleans going into next school year.  Those five will most certainly be chartered by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

Our local elected Orleans Parish School Board continues to have jurisdiction of a different group of five schools.  They too are being pressured to charter those schools as well.    Now that charter operators have been approved for next school year, the RSD under John White wants us to believe that we can give input to those charters and they will run the schools based on our input.  There is nothing in law that requires them to hear us.  In fact the time to engage the community should have been before the charter was written, not after.

This is “Fake” Community engagement; input after you write a charter is not authentic community engagement.  We want local community control or our own schools.  We don’t want people from outside of our communities come in with their own ideas and their own board  running our schools.   In my work with the John Mc Donogh HS community over the past few months, we wrote into the plan requested by Supt. John White,   that we wanted two thirds of the seats on the board of any charter organization assigned to the school  in exchange for getting our support.   Now, it looks like the Future is Now charter organization, run by Steve Barr, formerly of Green Dot and the Parent Revolution, will charter John Mc Donogh HS.

Recently, former Green Dot America now Future is Now Schools officials  started showing up in August as they submitted their charter application.  Mike Dolan and Steve Barr never once spoke to community members for input into their application  before they submitted “their” application.  They paid others who are disconnected from the community group already working to support the school,  to survey the community about the school.  They tried to do an end around to claim that they had community support.  However, they never really engaged the group of people who have been working for years in to have a voice in how John Mc Donogh High School  would operate.

Moreover, as is well known, many of the charter franchises such as KIPP have practices that cause children with special needs or behavior problems to leave their schools.  The KIPP schools are among the few charters that are not D or F schools. KIPP and Firstline charter schools have political ties to  the New Schools for New Orleans group which received the i3 money to proliferate charter schools in New Orleans.

John White is now proposing a new citywide enrollment system to help parents get their choices.  However I am skeptical. That will not help me choose to make Greater Gentilly into the school we started out to create.  These other school communities are experiencing the same disrespect.   So, no,  there is no choice in the process and there’s no choice in parents choosing the schools we want for our children.

But we keep on trying.  Last week, the Carver High School Charter Board/Alumni group had a great meeting with some local elected officials, who pledged to help them get control of their school. My husband graduated from Carver High School. The Carver community group along with members from the Landry HS and the Reed HS groups were denied charters for the second and third time respectively. We are all now questioning the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) review process. Our state board only votes to approve or deny those charters that NACSA recommends for approval. They never get to vote on those that NACSA did not recommend.

We all believe that there is some favoritism involved in the process because many individuals connected to existing charter schools, the state Board and the Louisiana Department of Ed are the actual reviewers of the charter applications under the NACSA process. I remember our former state Superintendent Paul Pastorek making a big deal of having a “3rd party” reviewer to take the politics out of the process. That was a sham, there is politics all over this process and it is the current charter school lobby in this state that drives the NACSA review process. There is something wrong with a process that repeatedly screens out local community groups who happen to be largely Black yet charter franchises seem to have a smooth road to approval. We are happy that finally some of our state representatives are willing to look into this situation.

One local news station WDSU has been covering the story of the Landry HS struggle.

We hope that people will start to pay attention to what’s really happening in the New Orleans “so called” school reform effort that shuts out the people who are closest to the students. Stay tuned. You can follow more about New Orleans schools on Twitter using the hashtag #nolaed  Another group I work with called the New Orleans Education Equity Roundtable will soon launch a website with more “Truth About New Orleans Schools.” We tweet under the name NOLAEdEquity.

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