The Walter S. Cohen High School Alumni Association — which fought after Hurricane Katrina to keep their alma mater from being merged with another school — is raising concerns about declining test scores under its charter operator and plans for a new high school building they believe is too small.
New Orleans College Prep, which operates Cohen, received word in the spring that the construction of a new Cohen High School on the same site would be one of the final building projects undertaken by the Recovery School District with FEMA insurance money even as all school return to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board.
The new school will be built on the opposite side of the Cohen property as the current building, according to plans agreed upon by the Recovery School District and New Orleans College Prep, and the existing building will then be demolished after the students move. The plan would allow Cohen students to stay on site during construction, rather than having to move off site into a temporary location for the expected three years of construction.
“We can compete, recruit and retain our students if we have a facility that suits our modern standards,” said College Prep CEO Joel Castro.
Over the summer, New Orleans College Prep officials successfully convinced the Recovery School District to seek bids for a 110,000 square foot building — based in part in a dip in construction costs — rather than the 90,000 facility originally envisioned, Castro said. That size school would have capacity for 600 students, well more than the 350 currently enrolled, and what is considered an ideal size by many educators.
“There are models of schools now being built around the 500-student capacity,” Castro said. “There’s much more interaction, and much more success rate when you have a smaller high school.”
The alumni association, however, believes that even 110,000 square feet is too small for all the amenities the school should have, especially because the existing school is 150,000 square feet, said association president Jim Raby, who also serves on the College Prep board.
“It’s the overwhelming position of the alumni association that the existing building should be remodeled instead of a new building built,” Raby said. “For the record, the alumni association is prepared to do whatever is necessary to see that we do not downsize.”
Of particular concern to the association, Raby said, is the lack of any auditorium in the plans. Stephen Boyer, another board member, said he too has been disappointed in the modern “cafetorium” plan in many public schools, and said Cohen should seek an auditorium in any future plan for the school.
“One of the worst things in the world is to have, say, a first-grade graduation, and senior citizens are trying to navigate the bleachers,” Boyer said. We need to rethink about this auditorium issue. There’s such a thing as gym behavior and auditorium behavior. When I heard state no longer willing to fund auditoriums, it worried me. Why the emphasis on athletics for our kids, and not the emphasis on culture?”
Based on test scores from last year, College Prep officials believe Cohen’s performance score from the state is likely to fall from a C to a D, according to an analysis presented Monday night by data director Kallistia Bilinsky.
“We do expect that this year Cohen will be in the ‘D’ rating,” Bilinsky said. “We were three points above a ‘C,’ and now we expect to be three points below a ‘C.'”
The letter grade is comprised of test scores, ACT scores, the amount of extra work such as AP classes or internships that students completed, and graduation rates. Not only did the state test scores fall, but fewer students earned an 18 or higher on the ACT, dramatically decreasing that aspect of Cohen’s core. Only the diploma quality and the graduation rates held relatively steady this year.
The slide in scores is yet another turnaround for the school, which rose from among the lowest-rated schools in the city less than 10 years ago to a B rating that attracted a visit from then President Obama’s cabinet secretary for education in 2016. Castro was hired as the new CEO this spring, after the College Prep network also lost its charter for Sylvanie Williams due to low test scores, and he has replaced the principals at both of College Prep’s remaining schools, Cohen and Crocker.
Raby said the gradual decline in Cohen’s enrollment is more attributable to the public’s perception of those falling scores than any new building can fix.
“Maybe you’re not getting enough students because you don’t have a good school,” Raby said. “You can put the Taj Mahal out there, but if you’re a D school, you’re not going to recruit students.”
Board member Grisela Jackson agreed with Raby that College Prep ought not to rubber-stamp a proposal that reduces Cohen’s stature.
“I just don’t why we are so eager to argue the RSD’s points,” Jackson said. “I don’t understand why we need to short-change ourselves. It’s our job to ensure that we have a world-class quality facility, including an auditorium.”
Board members Celeste Eustis and Murray Pitts, however, agreed with Castro that the loss of the auditorium is an acceptable trade-off for the benefits of a new school building.
“Let’s put what we want out there and see what’s going to come back,” Eustis said. “Actually renovating a 150,000 square foot building that’s in deplorable shape can cost more than building a new building.”
The contractors who hope to bid on the project must be certified by Sept. 5, Castro said. While the Recovery School District has made some specifications — such as the size of the school and certain amenities that must be included in it — the contractors themselves are charged with including a design for the building in their proposal, and Castro said the College Prep board may have some say in deciding which plans best suit the school’s needs.
No vote was taken on the issue Monday night. Instead, board chair Patrick Norton said they would wait until the bids are returned to evaluate the proposals on the table before making any recommendations to the Recovery School District.
To watch video from the meeting, see below. [Note: The phone broadcasting the video had an unexpected technical failure prior to the Cohen discussion, but much of the information about the test scores was recorded.]