New Orleans College Prep officials strive for renewal of Sylvanie Williams charter

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Sylvanie Williams College Prep performs in the Krewe of Freret parade on Napoleon Avenue in 2016. (Robert Morris,

Sylvanie Williams elementary school was the first campus awarded to the New Orleans College Prep charter network eight years ago, and now officials are pouring their resources into improving the struggling school’s grades enough to hold on to its charter.

After being awarded to the College Prep network in 2009, the school’s letter grade assigned by the state climbed to a C in 2013. It fell back to a D the following year, and remained there in the scores released last fall, ending with a score of 54.7 that is well short of the 70 needed in order for state officials to renew Sylvanie Williams’ charter.

This year, after a number of administrative changes, the school has been closely following students’ progress to determine specific strategies for improving each child’s performance. Midyear benchmarking, however, showed that they are still “quite short” of the scores they will need for the school to earn a 70, said College Prep data director Michael Ho in a presentation to the charter network’s governing board in early January.

The state awards significant bonus points for improvement, especially among children considered “at risk” because of their family’s income levels, Ho noted. If Sylvanie Williams can test high enough to earn a score of 60, it will probably reach a final score of the 70 it needs for a C with those bonus points, Ho said.

Among the measures being taken to focus on low performing students are after-school tutoring by teachers and volunteers Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as on Saturday, in specific subject areas where individual students are the weakest, said Andy Parker, the co-CEO of College Prep. Meanwhile, the College Prep central office has taken as many administrative duties as possible off of the Sylvanie Williams school leaders in order to give them maximum attention to academics — which includes team leader coaching of classroom teachers.

“We’ve organized an arsenal of resources that we hope are going to be fruitful,” Parker said.

Meanwhile, the principals at Sylvanie Williams are meeting with the kids individually to help them personally understand where to focus their own growth. The students respond well to hearing specifically what their responsibilities are, and children who score at different levels require different strategies to improve, Parker told the board.

To move from mastery to advanced, a student primarily needs practice to reduce careless errors, and that can be self-guided, he said. Kids who score lower, however, need more direct intervention for comprehension, and that requires extra staff, Parker says.

The school will conduct benchmark testing again in February and April, and that should show the result of the direct intervention, Parker said. For example, on the writing testing — where intervention has already begun, because it is considered the hardest portion of the end-of-the-year tests — the number of students scoring at “basic” has already risen from 40 percent to 60 or 70 percent, according to Ho’s data.

“The amount of attention and energy spent on the research task in writing — it’s a really complex, rigorous assessment,” Parker said. “That’s a definitely a bright spot. If they can write about a topic at that level, we know their reading is improving too.”

Turnover remains a significant challenge at Sylvanie Williams, where nearly 50 percent of teachers are in their first year, officials said. Retaining teachers in the field beyond a year or two is a national problem, however — not just an issue for College Prep or New Orleans, said NOCP board member Barbara MacPhee.

The extra staff time at Sylvanie Williams is pushing salaries over budget, and the current worst-case projection is a year-end deficit of around $680,000, said financial director Jonathan Tebeleff. The school’s reserve can absorb that loss, he said, and it will be financially worth it in the long run if Sylvanie Williams is stabilized.

After the end of the year testing, the school will receive its test scores over the summer. That data will be vetted through the fall, and schools will then be given their performance scores. At the end of the year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will meet to determine whether the charter will be renewed.

Regardless of how the scores turn out, College Prep will continue to operate Sylvanie Williams in the 2017-18 school year while its fate is being decided. And if the scores fall just short, but show significant improvement, the school could try to convince the state Superintendent for a recommendation to renew anyway — but Parker said he intends for Sylvanie Williams to earn the renewal on its own.

“I think we need to hit the mark,” Parker said.

The next meeting of the College Prep board is scheduled for Feb. 20 at the Hoffman expansion campus.

“We’re hopeful we’ll have a little bit prettier picture to share in February,” Parker told the board.

Live Blog New Orleans College Prep board meeting – Jan. 9, 2017

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