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.

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