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Don’t Bury The Lede: At-Risk Students Are Beating Expectations In NOLA High Schools [UPDATED 10/10/14]



UPDATE – 10/10/14:

On Friday, October 10th, John Ayers, Executive Director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives announced they were retracting their report, “Beating the Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools,” because it was determined the study’s methodology was flawed. Ayers released the following statement announcing the retraction:

The Cowen Institute has withdrawn its recent report Beating the Odds, which indicated that some public high schools in New Orleans, especially those that serve the most vulnerable youth, are performing better than predicted.

After its release, officials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate. The report will not be reissued.

As a result of this incident, the Cowen Institute will thoroughly examine and strengthen its internal protocols to ensure it adheres to the highest standards of review and accuracy in its research and in future reports.

We apologize for this mistake.

John Ayers, Executive Director

There’s an old saying in journalism: “don’t bury the lede” – that is, don’t hide the most important information from readers, put it your introductory paragraphs. It’s a lesson one sometimes wishes our friends at Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives would follow. This morning, the Cowen Institute releases a new report, “Beating the Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools,” and buried in the document is arguably the study’s most important statement:

“On key measures of student achievement (EOC, ACT, and cohort graduation rates) many high schools with high proportions of vulnerable students are performing better than predicted in New Orleans. In particular, all schools with available data in New Orleans had cohort graduation rates that were at or above their predicted levels.”

Considering where we started with our high schools, this is huge news and just more proof that New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms have helped raise academic achievement across the board.

Prior to the storm, New Orleans’ non-selective public high schools were some of the worst in the country and were failing to provide students with the education they deserved. For example, in the 2004 – 2005 school year:

  • All 13 of the district’s non-selective high schools were failing, with an average School Performance Score of 26 out of a possible 200 points1
  • 25% of the 12th graders enrolled in those 13 high schools did not graduate
  • Only 18 students – out of 2,302 seniors attending the district’s non-selective high schools that year – earned a four-year TOPS scholarship for college

Thankfully, today’s report from the Cowen Institute shows a vastly improved situation in New Orleans high schools. The study looks specifically at what they call “vulnerable students” (those who qualify for free/reduced lunch, failed the 8th grade LEAP test, are overage, or are identified as special needs) and uses statewide data to predict how schools should perform on end-of-course tests (EOCs), ACT, and cohort graduation rate measures, given their student populations. Here’s what they found:

I. Performance on End-of-Course Tests:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 10.18.59 PM

60% of New Orleans high schools met or exceeded predicted performance on EOC tests, with Landry-Walker High School coming out on top, scoring over 30 percentage points higher than would be expected on these exams. It should also be noted that all three of the schools run by Collegiate Academies, which has been the target of several unfair attacks over the past year, outperformed predictions on EOC tests by 25 percentage points or better.

I guess walking in line works: All three schools in Collegiate Academies' network outperformed on EOC tests.

I guess walking in line works: All of Collegiate Academies’ schools exceeded expectations on EOC tests.

II. ACT Performance:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 10.22.12 PM

12 out of the 18 high schools that received an ACT Index in the 2012-13 school year met or exceeded their predicted performance.2 Again, Collegiate Academies distinguished itself on this measure, with their flagship school, Sci Academy, outperforming its predicted score on the ACT Index by 34 points.

Sci Academy outperformed its predicted ACT Index by 34 points.

Sci Academy outperformed its predicted ACT Index by 34 points.

III. Cohort Graduation Rate:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 10.24.39 PM

13 out of 15 high schools exceeded their predicted cohort graduation rates in 2011-12, with the other two schools performing as expected.

IV. The Big Takeaway:

The big takeaway from the Cowen Institute report is simple: New Orleans’ school reforms are working and their impact is reaching even those students who face the added burdens of poverty, disability, or a history of underachievement. Critics should stop quibbling with the numbers – or denying them outright – and instead focus on how we can push students even further. As the study’s authors note:

“These findings show that all schools have the capacity to improve their students’ academic achievement; many schools were able to beat the odds and excelled despite having higher rates of vulnerable students.”

College-bound seniors pose with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (center) and RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard (right).

College-bound seniors pose with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (center) and RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard (right).

  1. From another perspective: In 2005, any school with a School Performance Score below 60 was considered failing – i.e., the city’s high schools weren’t even close to passing. 
  2. As noted in the report, some high schools did not receive an ACT Index in 2013 because they had not yet added a 12th grade at that time. 

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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A Sibling Dispute In Court Could Spell Trouble for Smothers Academy Charter School's CEO Is Accused Of Financial Impropriety In Lawsuit Filed By Brother



The CEO of a local charter management organization, which was investigated by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) after a report on this blog raised questions about its management and financial practices, is being accused of financial impropriety in a lawsuit filed by his own brother.

On March 28th, I published a post – “Red Flags Everywhere” – which highlighted troubling issues at Smothers Academy, a Type 2 charter school in Jefferson Parish. It noted that the school appeared to be in violation of state ethics laws prohibiting nepotism, seeing that Smothers Academy’s CEO Damon Smothers had hired his brother, Kemic Smothers, as the organization’s legal counsel and director of procurement. The piece also drew attention to several concerns surfaced in Smothers Academy’s F.Y. 2017 audited financial statements, including the assertion that Damon Smothers had spent over $9300 on the school’s credit card for personal expenses.

Read my original piece on Smothers Academy:

Red Flags Everywhere | PE + CO

A review of documents from a Jefferson Parish charter operator that applied to run a historic high school in New Orleans has revealed that the organization could be violating state ethics laws and has been flagged for serious deficiencies in its management and accounting practices.

A week later, LDOE officials sent a letter to Eddie Williams, president of the board of directors of Smothers Academy, requesting documentation related to the problems identified in their audit. On April 17th, LDOE sent a second letter to Williams, which formally notified the board that Smothers Academy was in violation of the state’s nepotism laws and instructed them to terminate the employment of either Damon or Kemic Smothers by June 30th. As a result, Kemic was fired that same day.

Yet it appears that he is refusing to go without a fight.

Court documents reveal that Kemic is now suing his brother Damon (along with Smothers Academy, Inc., two members of the board of directors, and the school’s CFO Mark DeBose) for breach of contract, violation of the whistleblower statute, retaliatory discharge, and fraud.

Smothers Academy CEO Damon Smothers (left) is being sued by his brother Kemic (right), who previously served as the school’s legal counsel and director of procurement.

In a petition filed with the Orleans Parish Civil District Court in July, Kemic claims that he was summoned to an April 5th meeting with his brother and CFO Mark DuBose in which they revealed that Damon had “gifted himself” $20,000 drawn from the school’s bank account without the knowledge or consent of the board of directors. They then asked Kemic to devise a way for Damon to keep the money without having to inform the board or repay it. However, Kemic refused, noting that the unauthorized allocation of funds was almost certainly illegal.

Kemic goes on to assert that he was subsequently terminated on April 17th – as opposed to June 30th when his contract officially ended – for refusing to help Damon hide the $20,000 he had taken from the school’s bank account. According to the lawsuit, “Damon Smothers insinuated that Kemic Smothers was not a team player and that he should have found a way for Damon Smothers to avoid repaying the $20,000.00.”

It should be noted that accusations made in Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit are simply that: accusations. The court has not ruled on the merits of the case. Nevertheless, in light of the board’s lax financial oversight and Damon’s questionable use of the school’s credit card, these latest allegations should be investigated to ensure that Smothers Academy administrators are not enriching themselves at the expense of their students.

Read Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit against his brother:

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



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.


Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA

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