Sep 132017

Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary on Martin Luther King Boulevard, photographed in March 2017. (Robert Morris,

With a state-assigned letter grade approaching that will likely determine whether New Orleans College Prep loses the charter for Sylvanie Williams Elementary, the network’s governing board embarked Wednesday night on a process to re-examine the structure of the entire organization.

Sylvanie Williams Elementary was the first campus school that College Prep was assigned to operate a few years after Hurricane Katrina, and initially posted promising academic gains. After those early successes, the state awarded several more campuses to the network in the Uptown area — the former Cohen High School, Crocker elementary, and most recently a startup early-learning center at the site of the former Hoffman school.

Sylvanie Williams was due for its charter to be renewed this year, but a recent slide in its School Performance Score based on test results has called into question whether New Orleans College Prep will be allowed to continue operating it. After successive ‘D’ letter grades, Sylvanie Williams was required to earn a ‘C’ to have its charter renewed, but a first look at the school’s springtime testing foretold lower grades than expected.

Concurrently last year, the network lost its founding CEO, Ben Kleban, who was elected without opposition to a seat on the Orleans Parish School Board. The network’s operations director, Natalie Kaharick, is now serving as an acting CEO for the current school year, but the College Prep governing board has expressed an intention to begin a national search to fill the position permanently. (Kaharick has said she is interested in the position, but has not decided whether to apply.)

Amid so much change, the board has hired education consultants Thaly Germain and Simmons Lettre (who have worked in Boston and Washington, D.C, respectively) to lead them not only through the CEO search, but to help define the future of the organization. Much of Wednesday night’s monthly board meeting focused on starting that process, with Germain and Lettre leading the members through a variety of exercises to help them state their challenges and goals for overcoming them.

Many board members cited stabilizing the network’s finances as their top priority, after earlier in the meeting approving a budget revision to the current year shrinking expenses after lower-than-expected enrollment across the network. Others said finding a permanent CEO was the top priority, but board chair Peter Harding said he was most concerned about absorbing the impact of potentially losing the network’s first school.

The most significant upcoming challenge for the board, Harding said, is “Managing the whole transition when we lose, probably, the charter to Sylvanie — the transition from four schools to three schools.”

Ultimately, the board defined its own future success with a number of specific goals: financial stability, observable academic gains by students, a permanent CEO with the support of the board, a strategic plan, stable enrollment and, finally, a well-organized board with fresh ideas and strong committees. Lettre suggested that the board consider the creation of a committee specifically focused on academics, which could receive reports directly from principals, observe classrooms if necessary, and report back to the full board on academic needs and priorities.

After more than an hour of discussion, the board convened a closed-door session to begin evaluating its current CEO, Kaharick. The consultants remained in the room with the board to help guide that conversation. Kaharick, however, left, describing the executive session as a necessary step toward formally convening the search for the school’s next CEO.

The board concluded the executive session after about an hour and a half, and Harding said no votes would be taken.

“We’re into process,” Harding said.

To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.

Live Blog New Orleans College Prep board meeting – Sept. 13

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