Leaders of two French-immersion public charter schools in Uptown New Orleans, Audubon Charter School and Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans, both made efforts this week to dispute allegations that their admissions procedures favor students from wealthy families.
The allegations originate in an October report authored by former Orleans Parish schools superintendent Barbara Ferguson and education advocate Karran Harper Royal entitled “The Deception of the ‘Lottery’ at Lycee Francais and Audubon Schools.” The report argues that because both schools offer fee-based pre-kindergarten programs (costing up to $4,570 per child) that provide a pathway into their free public kindergarten classes, the schools are becoming “instruments for educating only a select group of students” and constitute a “misuse of the charter school concept.”
Leaders at both Audubon and Lycée Français responded to the accusations this week, each arguing that the report misconstrues their actual admissions procedures and reaffirming their schools’ commitment to serving students at all income levels.
The response by Lycée Français came in the form of two emails addressed to parents Wednesday and Thursday seeking to dispel “false rumors” about the school. Wednesday’s letter opens by noting that the school is in regular contact with the Louisiana Department of Education and the school board’s own attorneys to ensure compliance with state charter law, then goes on to confront the admissions issue directly:
One of the false rumors being spread about Lycée Français is that we are “stacking” our public kindergarten classes with students coming from our tuition-paying Pre-K 4 classes, thus leaving no room for children who did not attend our Pre-K 4 program. In fact, Louisiana charter law, to which we adhere, does not allow automatic advancement of children from a tuition-paying program into a free public kindergarten program; if there are more applications for kindergarten than there are spots available, a lottery must be held. Please know, however, that Lycée Français’ is prepared to open additional kindergarten classes, if necessary, in order to accommodate a large number of applicants.
That email was followed up Thursday with a second message to parents.
As a follow-up to yesterday’s informational message, we want to reassure you that we are committed to accommodating all of our current Pre-K children who wish to continue in our kindergarten classes. State charter law requires us to hold a lottery if we receive more kindergarten applications than spaces available. However, our enrollment projections have always included additional kindergarten classes after this first year in order to build a strong base for Lycée Français as we move forward. Our current plan, as outlined in our contract with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is to offer 100 kindergarten spots for 2012-13, which is double this year’s number. That means that there will be space for 60 new students in addition to the 40 current Pre-K 4 students that we expect to welcome into kindergarten next year, which should eliminate the need for a lottery. In the unlikely event that we receive more than 100 applications, however, we are prepared to create even more kindergarten spaces in order to accommodate the demand.
Lycée Français is expected to announce Monday the location of its new “main campus,” which school leaders have said will have room for 500 students — including the expanded kindergarten sections that board members have long planned for.
Audubon Charter School
For Audubon, the response to the report came in the form of a 40-minute explainer session about the school’s admissions practices during Saturday’s monthly meeting of the school board. The complexity of the high-profile school’s admissions process may give rise to the misconceptions, said Carlos Zervigon, a founding member of the school’s board and its current vice-chair, but he and school administrators sought clarity on the issue through a lengthy report of their own, bolstered by statistics.
Audubon Charter accepts students in three “tiers” for its openings, officials said. The first tier is for French nationals and siblings of current students. The second tier is for students from French-speaking countries and students in French-immersion or Montessori programs, and the third tier is open to anyone. The tier system, Zervigon noted, is to satisfy the requirements of the French government, from which Audubon also receives funding and faculty members.
Although pre-kindergarten is fee-based, the majority of children do not pay a fee, according to statistics compiled by the school. Gifted and special-needs students are paid by the state, low-income 4-year-olds are paid by a state grant known as LA4, and the amount of the fee is determined by a separate company based on a sliding scale that examines a family’s income.
“We have a good number of people who pay no fee, some who pay a full fee, and some who pay partial,” Zervigon said. “No one is being barred because of ability to pay. No one is being kept out.”
Specifically, statistics compiled by the school show that of 90 students in pre-kindergarten at Audubon in the current school year, 27 are paying a fee — 30 percent (the same proportion as last school year). Seven students qualified as gifted or special-needs, 18 were recipients of the LA4 grant, and 38 were deemed not to need to pay at all. Of the 27 who do pay a fee, eight students are being charged reduced amounts that range from less than $1,000 to less than $3,000, leaving only 19 students being charged at or near the full $4,570.
While on the topic, Audubon leaders took issue with the “selective admissions” moniker that has been applied to the school as well. Students in pre-kindergarten through second grade are admitted without any testing whatsoever. New students applying to enter grades three through eight are tested, but primarily to ensure that they are prepared for the specific demands of the French program, where all classes are taught in French, or the Montessori program, which employ a system of self-guided instruction that requires a certain amount of remediation for new students unused to it, leaders said. But once admitted, students are not tested to return.
“Students are not put out for academic reasons,” Zervigon said.
Several board members thanked Zervigon for the explanation, but noted their own discomfort at the notion of charging a fee for any of the school’s classes. Zervigon replied that he had initially opposed a fee-based pre-kindergarten, but said he was won over by the notion that allowing some families who can afford to pay to do so creates space and opportunities for families who couldn’t afford it at all.
“We’re all uncomfortable with this,” said board member Teddi Locke. “The problem is, there’s a huge pre-K population across the country that’s not being funded.”
Board member Jacqueline Smith suggested that the school begin exploring ways to raise money to reduce the cost for the remaining parents who do pay.
The school’s admissions policies do create one loophole, Zervigon noted. Because the French government requires Audubon to give preference to students transferring from other French immersion schools — a policy intended to accomodate students whose families have to move to New Orleans for work, for example — students who attend the private pre-kindergarten program at Ecole Bilingue could take advantage of that policy and transfer to Audubon.
“You could spend $10,000 for one year at Ecole Bilingue, and then jump the line and come to Audubon,” Zervigon said. “That doesn’t work for any of us.”
Not only does that loophole weaken Audubon’s commitment to open enrollment, Zervigon said, it also hurts Ecole Bilingue creating vacancies there in upper levels that can be harder to fill. The problem is relatively rare — there are still open spots in this year’s kindergarten class, for example — but is worth addressing, Zervigon said.
“There’s really no easy solution,” Zervigon said after the meeting. “We’ll have to talk to the French government about it.”
Saturday’s meeting of Audubon Charter School’s governing board also included updates on the school’s renovation of the Broadway campus and temporary move to Gentilly, its efforts to control school traffic on Broadway, and a discussion of a recent visit to the school by the French ambassador. To read a transcript of our live coverage of Saturday’s meeting, see the box below.
Good morning. I’m Robert Morris of UptownMessenger.com, and I’m at Audubon Charter School’s Carrollton campus for the November meeting of the school’s governing board.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:18
The board has just reached a quorum and begun the meeting, and vice president Carlos Zervigon is leading a discussion of parent representation on the board.
Parent representation on a board is generally not considered a best practice for school governance, Zervigon says, because it puts parents in a supervisory role over teachers. But parents were instrumental in writing the charter, and Audubon has continued the practice, Zervigon says.
“It works for Audubon,” Zervigon says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:20
The board has two new parent representatives this year, one for French and one for Montessori.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:21
Moving on the principal’s report, Janice Dupuy says the Montessori teachers are now enrolled in online training courses. No Montessori training is offered locally, so prior to the online course, they had to travel to cities around the country for the training.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:22
The French ambassador visited Audubon’s campus yesterday. “Although the visit was short, they were able to pick up that our students speak French as if they were natural born citizens,” Dupuy says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:23
The school’s annual fund has raised $11,000 since last year. The school will hold a “Farewell to Broadway” party next month.
“It’s going to be sad, but at the same time, we’re ready to move on and get the renovation started,” Dupuy says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:24
The school has received the final drawings for the swing space, and administrators will meet with parents Wednesday about start and end times and other operational questions. There will also be a visit day ahead of time so parents will know where to take their kids.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:25
Dupuy says the school is continuing its “Be a Good Neighbor” campaign, trying to stop people from parking illegally, in front of driveways and too close to corners. On Thursday, a traffic officer came to help with traffic flow. He noticed the number of people speeding, and the school has requested the NOPD send a speed-enforcement officer to the area as well.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:27
The board will receive an updated budget proposal at its next meeting, which will be Dec. 17.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:31
The French program is accredited through the French ministry up to 5th grade. To get a middle school accredited, it would have to add a 9th grade, Zervigon says.
To his knowledge, Audubon is the only public school accredited through the French ministry in the country — all the others are “very expensive” private schools, he says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:33
But the French program started as an agreement 25 years ago between the Louisiana governor’s office and the French government, Zervigon notes.
But since Audubon became a charter operated by the nonprofit FAME board, the relationship has become much more direct, Zervigon says. That way, the governor’s office cannot make agreements with the French government without the school’s input.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:35
“They’ve been our advocates, not just somebody on the other side of the table to negotiate with,” Zervigon says.
Two teachers come directly from the French Ministry of Education, he says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:36
Now, Audubon is under the French foreign ministry, not the ministry of education. The reason for that is because schools like Audubon are considered schools for French nationals abroad.
The French ministry of education is more for schools that choose to follow the French national curriculum, he says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:38
Audubon is part of the French international school system, Zervigon says, which is different. And part of the reason the visit from the ambassador was important was so that Audubon could make a case to retain the funding it receives from France as governments across Europe enter a period of austerity.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:40
Moving on, Zervigon turns to a discussion of the nomination process for new board members.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:42
Board member Jackie Smith is encouraging that an orientation session be held for new members, because service on the board requires a good deal of training.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:45
Zervigon notes that he won’t be on the board next year.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:46
He asks that nominations be sent to him by Monday.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:47
Next is a discussion of admissions.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:48
The office of civil rights within the state Department of Education was called into New Orleans in the 1990s to review admissions at schools around the city. Back then, Audubon was open admissions, first-come first-serve, stand in line for admissions, Zervigon says, but came under fire for its racial makeup.
At that time, it changed to begin testing, and other components were added.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:51
When Audubon became a charter, they ended the testing. But faculty came back, especially in the Montessori program, and asked that testing be reinstated in the upper grades, 3rd through 8th grades, Zervigon says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:53
The testing not only includes academic subjects, but also behavior, attendance and parental involvement, says administrator Alisa Dupre. Dupre says that for parents who are fully involved, they will likely meet the admissions requirement.
Also, the highest-scoring students aren’t the ones that are admitted. It’s just that students must meet a certain threshold to qualify.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:55
Zervigon says Audubon is primarily an open-admissions school, because the majority of its students come in kindergarten through second grade.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:56
Very few students start attending Audubon in the upper grades, just one or two per year.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:56
Also, once students are admitted to Audubon, they can return each year. They do not have to meet a certain testing level each year.
“Students are not put out for academic reasons,” Zervigon says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:57
The French program requires that students after first grade are able to communicate on grade level in French, because otherwise “they are doomed to failure,” Zervigon says. All subjects are taught in French.
Saturday November 19, 2011 10:58
Pre-kindergarten is fee-based, because the state generally won’t pay. But students who are gifted are paid by the state. Same for special needs students.
For free-and-reduced lunch students who are admitted to pre-K4, the school receives some money from the state.
But for students who don’t meet that criteria — including 3-year-olds — pre-kindergarten is fee-based.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:02
But the school didn’t want to block people who couldn’t afford pre-kindergarten, so they have contracted with a third-party service that develops a sliding scale fee based on income.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:03
“We have a good number of people who pay no fee, some who pay a full fee, and some who pay partial,” Zervigon says. “No one is being barred because of ability to pay. No one is being kept out.”
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:04
Dupre also points out that the fee assessment takes place after the lottery, so the school doesn’t know whether families will be able to pay when they are accepted.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:05
Some families who are accepted choose not to attend, but they usually go on to other fee-based pre-kindergarten programs, Dupre says. But only one has appealed the fee decision in the two years of the program.
Some parents say they won’t apply because they don’t think they can afford it, but Dupre says she encourages them to apply anyway, because they might end up qualifying not to pay the fee.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:08
Students who then enter the pre-kindergarten are given admittance through the system.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:08
Zervigon says it was important to have a pre-kindergarten, because that’s how it’s done in France.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:09
Board member Jacqueline Smith says she’s still uncomfortable with the $4500 fee for pre-kindergarten.
“We’re all uncomfortable with this,” says board member Teddi Locke. “The problem is, there’s a huge pre-K population across the country that’s not being funded.”
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:11
Zervigon says he really fought against the fee at first, but what won him over is that it’s effect in the end is that families who can afford the fee are helping make pre-K3 available to students who couldn’t.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:13
This way, some children who couldn’t afford pre-K3 are receiving it — instead of none if the program didn’t exist.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:13
Smith says she wants to know how much the program costs, so the board can explore ways to raise money to reduce the cost.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:15
The program is more expensive than kindergarten and above. Pre-K has a max of 20 students per class with a teacher and an assistant, while kindergarten and above can be 26 students with a teacher only.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:17
Yet another exception: French nationals receive automatic admission, based on the school’s agreement with the French government. The school also gives preference to students from Francophone countries. Finally, siblings of current students also receive preference.
Yet another “wrinkle,” Zervigon says: Students from sister French-accredited schools also receive preference. That worked fine until the emergence of Ecole Bilingue in New Orleans, another French school that’s private.
“You could spend $10,000 for one year at Ecole Bilinque, and then jump the line and come to Audubon,” Zervigon says. “That doesn’t work for any of us.”
Not only does it weaken Audubon’s commitment to open enrollment, it also hurts Ecole Bilingue — now they have to find French-speaking students to replace those who left to go to Audubon.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:22
It’s actually a three tier system. First preference – French nationals and siblings of current students. Second preference – Students from Francophone countries and those from French-immersion schools. Third – open.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:23
But it’s not a widespread problem, the officials conclude, as evidenced by the fact that this year’s kindergarten still has vacancies.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:24
Audubon doesn’t use top-down admissions for its testing, but the Office of Civil Rights would allow it for half of the incoming class.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:26
Zervigon says he is opposed to testing kindergarten students. All it really measures is the education level of the parents, he says.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:27
Zervigon says that Audubon suffers from the fact that the system is complicated and not well understood by the public.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:28
Dupre notes that students cannot apply to both programs.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:29
That appears to be it for the admissions discussion.
The major objection of neighbors has been traffic, so Dupre says the school is trying some new tactics before the school moves, such as bringing out a traffic officer.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:35
Audubon has requested speeding cameras outside both of its campuses.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:36
The board commends the administrators for making traffic more of a priority.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:37
Zervigon makes clear that the board wants monthly updates on the situation efforts to get crossing guards and more traffic control devices.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:42
Dupuy notes that the Orleans Parish School Board passed a good-neighbor resolution that commits to solving the traffic problems.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:43
There’s a suggestion that the board pass a resolution requiring that a crossing guard or police officer be secured, but Zervigon says he doesn’t not think it’s wise for the board to give narrow orders to the administration, lest it be seen as direct interference. Instead, he says it’s better just to make clear to the administration that it wants the problem solved.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:46
Smith suggests a good solution would be for the administration to add a monthly report to the board on traffic issues.
Saturday November 19, 2011 11:49
The board decides to send a letter to the mayor’s office and other officials also expressing its wishes regarding traffic control.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the author of this article, Robert Morris, is the parent at Lycée Français (as also noted on our “About Us” page). Contact Robert at rmorris@NolaMessenger.com, or post your comment below.