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A Few Points About Landry, Walker & Community Involvement

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Jessica Williams of The Lens has a new article out on the dustup over the planned merger of O. Perry Walker and L.B. Landry and the questions it raises about the level of community input in our city’s charter school system. Williams’ article presents a fairly balanced view of the issues and opinions involved in both the merger debate and the larger community involvement question, but there are a few important points that need to be emphasized:

1. Objectively, it makes sense to combine the two schools on the Landry campus, but under the leadership of Walker’s current administrators, who have a proven track record of success.

  • RSD’s rationale for merging Landry and Walker is straightforward: enrollment numbers do not justify the continued operation of three high schools on the West Bank (currently Walker, Landry & Karr).
  • Since the storm, Walker’s performance has steadily climbed to the point that they’re eligible to leave the RSD, while Landry has continued to struggle in terms of school culture and academic performance.
  • Moreover, Walker’s facilities are desperately in need of renovation, yet just a mile away, Landry’s new $54 million campus is more than half-empty.

2. Opposition to the Landry/Walker merger is driven by more than just a deep sense of school pride, or concern that combining the two student populations will lead to violence – self-interest also certainly plays a role.

  • One elephant in the room is the fact that the merger of the two schools will inevitably lead to layoffs. Under the current plan, staff members of the combined high school will officially be employed by the Algiers Charter School Association. ACSA CEO Adrian Morgan has publicly stated they plan to hire some staff members from Landry, but ultimately hiring decisions will be in the hands of the school’s leaders, and those who find themselves in redundant positions will likely lose their jobs.
  • There may also be trepidation among some at Walker about the impact that an influx of students from Landry will have on their hard-won school culture and academic performance. After all, Landry has been plagued by an instability in leadership as well as serious discipline issues, and academic performance has stagnated (and in some subjects, actually declined) since the school reopened in 2010.
  • Finally, lingering resentment over the rejection of the Lord Beaconsfield Landry Charter Association’s application for a charter is no doubt also a factor behind the opposition. Many of the loudest voices in protest come from those who were involved in the chartering effort.

3. Yes, charter schools were originally touted as a way to give parents and community members an opportunity for greater engagement in schools. And today, they have more input and influence than they ever did under pre-Katrina NOPS.

  • The very fact that numerous community meetings have been held over the planned merger of Landry and Walker (as well as other contentious district issues) is evidence that school officials take stakeholder input seriously. Before the storm, such outreach efforts were the exception rather than the rule. Instead, community members were forced to suffer through chaotic OPSB meetings just for an opportunity to air their concerns.
  • At many charter schools across the city, parents and students can get their issues addressed by simply picking up the phone (to call a principal or teacher on their cell) or by walking into the main office. Under the ancien régime, those with school-related questions had nowhere to turn but the nearly impenetrable glass monolith that was the old NOPS HQ on General DeGaulle, a place where it didn’t matter if you knew who to call for answers because no one ever picked up the phone.
  • NOPS district officials and school board members were masters in the art of grandstanding, always claiming that they were defending the community’s best interests. However, as it turned out, the bluster of officials and bureaucracy of the system had a purpose: it allowed many people to bilk the school district out of millions of dollars as they ran it into the ground. Although the decentralized structure of our current school system is often portrayed as an obstacle, in fact, it makes the operation of schools and their use of resources much more transparent.

4. No, there has not been a “commercialization” of the charter school movement in New Orleans, rather we’ve witnessed its “professionalization” since Louisiana’s charter school law was passed in 1995.

  • Nationally, charter schools, on average, have failed to outperform their traditional counterparts, while in Louisiana, the opposite has been true. Why? Because the state set a high bar for charter applicants and has been willing to revoke charters and close schools that fail to meet expectations for academic performance. Over time, the most effective charter school organizations have seized opportunities to replicate their success at new school sites.
  • In 1998, when Jay Altman and Tony Recasner opened the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, the movement was still in its infancy and the grassroots involvement of families and community members was necessary to get the school off the ground. However, it takes more than the well-intentioned support of families and community members to establish a successful charter school, as the disastrous example of Einstein Charter School makes clear.
  • Community engagement is an essential element in establishing a successful charter school, but it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Ultimately, we need to ensure that those to whom we entrust the job of effectively educating our children have the skills and resources to accomplish that goal. As a result, tough decisions have to be made regarding the leadership and direction of schools, decisions that are bound to leave some community members disappointed.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Charters

Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education

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On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.

Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.

For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.


Dear Board Members,

In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.

On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.

Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.

These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.

In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.

Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.

Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.

If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:

Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Sincerely,

Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA

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Charters

All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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