Jan 262018

The New Orleans College Prep charter network can move on from the loss of one of its struggling elementary schools to become home to two ‘B’-rated schools over the course of the next school year, and go on to develop a reputation for both college readiness or a few tightly-focused career tracks separate from college, a candidate for the schools’ new CEO told their governing board on Thursday.

Adam Meinig has worked in public education for 18 years, starting at Langston Hughes Elementary as a teacher in 2000, then spending three years teaching in Denver before returning to New Orleans in 2005 as founder of KIPP Believe College Prep middle school in 2006. Meinig left KIPP Believe in 2014 to take charge of development for school leaders at Collegiate Academies.

By 2012, KIPP Believe had steadily grown its School Performance Score to boast one of the highest scores in the city, rated a ‘B’ just a few points behind the International School of Louisiana and the New Orleans School of Science and Math. In 2013, however, it fell significantly to a ‘C’, and has stayed there since then.

College Prep’s portfolio of schools saw similar rises in the past, followed by one much more dramatic fall. Its first school, Sylvanie Williams elementary, grew to a ‘C’ in 2013, but gradually fell to an ‘F’ this year and faces the expected loss of its charter at the end of this school year. College Prep’s newer elementary acquisition, Crocker, scored high enough for a C in 2015, but has slipped back to a low D in the two years since. Cohen College Prep high school drew national attention and a visit from the U.S. Secretary of Education for rising from one of the lowest-performing schools in the state to a healthy ‘B’ score in 2015, but has also slipped back to a ‘C’ this year. (Its new Hoffman early-childhood center is rated “proficient” by the state on a separate scale.)

Those latest declines coincide with a period of transitional leadership for College Prep, after founding CEO Ben Kleban was won a seat on the Orleans Parish School Board in 2016. While former operations manager Natalie Kaharick has served as the interim CEO, the governing board prepared for its current national search, and announced that it had arrived at three finalists earlier this month.

Meinig became first of those candidates to meet with the board and the public on Thursday night, and he said that his first priority through the summer of this year would be reorganizing the network administration to stabilize its finances in the wake of the expected loss of Sylvanie Williams.

“We lost a school,” Meinig said. “That can never, ever happen again — not because of our organization, but because those are real kids.”

The next school year would be focused on raising both the D at Crocker and the C at Cohen to a ‘B’ rating, Meinig said, acknowledging that it is an aggressive goal. The key to that, he said, is not waiting until periodic exams to assess progress, but to make sure that everyone in every building is working hard through daily and weekly checks. Improving teacher retention would also be a key priority, as first-year teachers face significant challenges in the classroom, and retaining the same group of children through the network from Hoffman to Crocker and finally Cohen.

“It is an aggressive timeline, but I would say there isn’t any time to waste. It can’t be any longer than that, because kids are coming,” Meinig said, noting that he plans to enroll his own children in the schools he oversees. He added, “I’m a dreamer in a way that I think is good.”

The schools could and may reach an ‘A’ rating as well in the second or third year, he said, but his goal is not solely to teach to a test or a score. Instead, he wants to focus on development of the whole child — celebrating extracurricular performance as well as academic achievement — and creating a culture where college readiness is prioritized alongside other possible career paths.

Schools that send almost all their children to college, only to see half of them drop out within two years, are not serving students, Meinig said: they are simply creating debt for those kids. College Prep should select one or two career tracks to create excellence in as well, giving every student the opportunity to prepare either for college or another productive path if they prefer.

“We’re not in the business of raising scores. We’re in the business of raising kids,” Meinig said. “I don’t care if we’re an ‘B’ school, if what happens in our schools is great for kids. I won’t sell out anything that’s great for kids to become an ‘A’ school.”

Meinig’s presentation and the board’s brief questions to him lasted about 30 minutes (which you can watch in full in the video at the top of the page). About a dozen people were in the audience, a mix of parents and College Prep staff, but none asked any questions of Meinig during the meeting.

The governing board then entered a closed-door executive session to discuss Meinig’s application. After about 10 minutes, they invited Meinig in as well, and spent another hour in discussion with him before adjourning.

The other two finalists, Joel Castro and Denise Charbonnet will appear before the board in a similar format at a meeting tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31, following a previously unannounced shakeup in their lineup. Thomas Shepley, initially named a finalist, withdrew from consideration, the committee said in a statement Friday morning, so the board’s search committee recommended Charbonnet be considered in his place.

Adam Meinig, one of three finalists to be the new CEO of New Orleans College Prep, speaks to the charter network’s governing board on Thursday, Jan. 25. (screen grab from video by Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

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