State education board meeting at Cohen HS becomes forum for concerns about charter takeover

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What was about to be an extraordinarily brief public meeting of the state’s top education officials at Walter L. Cohen High School became an unscripted dialogue about the transformation of that school and others into charters Wednesday evening.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held a meeting in New Orleans on Wednesday with an agenda primarily of reports — a recommendation that Lafayette Academy be allowed to add an eighth grade and move its youngest classes and offices to a new location off-site, and receiving reports on preschool programs and building projects around the city. The board breezed through those items with few comments in less than 20 minutes, and was about to adjourn when Ashana Bigard, a parent and activist, asked for permission to speak.

Recovery School District superintendent Patrick Dobard agreed to hear her questions, and Bigard began by expressing concern about discipline policies as Walter L. Cohen High School is transformed into a charter school operated by NOLA College Prep. Specifically, she said, NOLA College Prep has one of the highest suspension rates in the city — for minor infractions that Cohen students are not used to being punished for.

“We don’t get suspended for laughing, or not sitting up straight, or maybe not having a belt,” Bigard said.

The Recovery School District is working to standardize some disciplinary measures across the city, Dobard replied, starting with an effort to create a common hearing office for expulsion cases. Attention is just now turning to suspensions, and NOLA College Prep officials are leading a task force of educators seeking policies to reduce suspensions, Dobard said.

Bigard’s next question dealt with a common theme throughout the one-grade-at-a-time transformation of Cohen to College Prep management, that of a “segregation” between students at the two schools. Cohen students are on the ground floor, while College Prep students are in the floors above them, and the charter school students seem to have the advantage of better equipment and opportunities, Bigard said.

“It’s almost like, ‘You’re better than those kids down there,'” Bigard said.

Dobard replied that students from the two schools do participate together in some activities, but he said that the issues of pride Bigard described should be considered normal “maturing” problems of adolescence, and that teachers and parents should work together on a personal level to address them where they arise.

“We want it to be a seamless integration of the high school experience” as Cohen’s direct-run grades are gradually phased out and College Prep takes over the building, Dobard said. The situation is temporary, and should be over within two years, he added.

BESE member Kira Orange Jones then asked Bigard for suggestions how to improve that integration, and Bigard replied that children should be allowed to interact with each other. Further, she said, any new teachers at College Prep should be paired with veteran teachers, a suggestion that drew some murmurs of assent from the audience.

“Their culture should fit with our community, and if it doesn’t, that’s a real problem,” Bigard said.

Finally, Bigard asked how College Prep will be accountable to the community, noting that their school performance score actually dipped six points last fall. Like any charter school, Dobard replied, if College Prep’s performance is inadequate, management of the school will be given to a new operator. With that, Bigard’s questioning ended, and the meeting adjourned.

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NOLA College Prep, like other schools, is in the middle of its budgeting process. At its May 8 board meeting, school director Ben Kleban told board members that the budget has a deficit from grants in previous years that are now expiring, and that the board’s task will be to close that gap in the coming years without eating too deeply into reserve funds.

Among the options Kleban presented were increasing the number of students per class, which will bring in more per-pupil funding from the state, or cutting some vacancies and spreading those duties among other educators — having some curriculum directors take on additional teaching duties, for example. Some supplemental services could also be cut, Kleban said.

No final decisions were made on the College Prep budget at that meeting, but the issue will be discussed in more detail at the board’s next meeting, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday (June 5) at Sylvanie Williams Elementary, 3127 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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