Saturday, May 21, 2011



A Recovery School District official plans to launch a nonprofit charter-management organization aimed at taking over and turning around failing schools. The move represents a national trend toward creating groups that can step in and transform failing campuses; it further signals the latest evolution in a survival-of-the-fittest school landscape in New Orleans. “We want to pluck off weaker schools,” said Gary Robichaux, the district’s director of elementary schools.

His group, tentatively named ReNEW Schools, aims to take control of two struggling schools — either charter or traditional — as soon as the summer of 2010. All of the takeovers would become charter schools, suggesting the number of charters will continue to grow in the city, and that the Recovery School District could morph into more of a support and oversight entity than a direct operator of schools. More than half of the city’s public schools already are charters — schools run by independent nonprofit boards that receive public financing. The growing likelihood that all, or nearly all, of New Orleans’ public schools will become charters during the next few years has elicited mixed responses. “You are really going to see the emergence of a number of new charters that are community driven,” said Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas. “I view charters not only as a vehicle for improving schools, but also improving community representation.” But longtime New Orleans public school teacher Jim Randels, who founded the nationally recognized writing program Students at the Center, said the community will not have true school choice if it can only select from charter schools.

“I support things that give more local control and voice,” he said. But “I think it’s injurious to democracy to say that a charter is the only way to do it.”

Changing charters
During the past few years, a plethora of charter organizations and networks, including Knowledge is Power Program and Edison Schools, have opened schools in New Orleans. But now — with more seats than students at several schools — the focus has shifted from starting new schools to figuring out how to improve existing schools. “Takeovers will be the future for the next three, four years,” Robichaux said. He added that if his group had ramped up earlier, it might have sought to take over the Free Academy, a struggling charter school closed last month by a vote of its board.

As part of a takeover, the group would re-invent the school, putting in a new leader, staff and academic program. At the outset, the organization will focus on takeovers, but Robichaux said he hopes it can ultimately play two other roles: nurturing higher-performing traditional schools that want to convert to charters and supporting charter providers that will focus on special and alternative education. The charters have, on average, taken significantly fewer special education students than the traditional schools during the past three years.

In its first year, ReNEW Schools will receive foundation funding through New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that has supported several new charter schools in the city. The money will pay the salary of Robichaux, who will leave his position with the RSD starting in July, and Colleen Mackay, another Recovery School District staffer.

ReNEW Schools is one of a growing number of so-called “charter management organizations” in the United States that run clusters of charter schools. When the charter model started spreading in the 1990s, most of the schools were independent mom-and-pop shops. But some groups, such as KIPP, began to open more schools. In the past couple of years, some charter management organizations, such as Green Dot in California, have honed in on turning around weak schools. Neerav Kingsland, vice president of school development and human capital at New Schools for New Orleans, said most schools in New Orleans are thriving, but a handful still lag. Those will be candidates for a takeover.
“Hopefully, it won’t be a question of whether they are charter or non-charter but of whether they are performing or not performing,” he said. Louella Givens, a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from New Orleans, said she had not heard about the new effort but worries about the possibility that all, or nearly all, of the public schools in the city might become charters. “That’s not a system that offers school choice,” she said.

Givens and others have also expressed concern that handing over so many RSD schools to charter providers distorts one of the fundamental missions of the district: Turning around schools on its own.

‘Evolution of the district’
Vallas argues that creating the charter management organization represents “the next step in the evolution of the district.” “Gary (Robichaux) could take four, six, eight schools into the CMO in the next few years, and we won’t have many direct-run schools left,” he said. “We want to get out of the business of running schools on a day-to-day basis.”

Vallas said clusters of charter schools will emerge and grow during the next few years, including those in the new charter management organization, those run by KIPP and those in the Algiers Charter Schools Association.

Some other local charter management organizations apart from ReNEW Schools may also expand into the business of takeovers during the next couple of years. While necessary, school takeover and turnaround efforts pose great challenges, said Meghan O’Keefe, the project director for school turnaround strategies at Boston group Mass Insight Education & Research Institute. “It’s a much harder job than starting new schools,” she said.

Sarah Carr can be reached at or 504.826.3497

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