Last week marked the beginning of the end at soon-to-close Lagniappe Academies in New Orleans. The Treme school began dismissing its 177 students early for the remainder of the school year, which will unexpectedly end a month early.
The 5-year-old charter school had planned to educate students until June 4, but the youngsters’ new last day is Friday of this week, according to a letter sent to parents.
In March, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted not to renew Lagniappe’s charter amid concerns about special education wrongdoing, effectively shuttering the school at the end of June.
The board’s March vote came one week after the Louisiana Department of Education released a 160-page report alleging numerous violations at Lagniappe of rules for special education students. Since then, Lagniappe’s top three leaders have resigned. Now the school’s closure is in the hands of a team of teachers.
Board members discussed closing early at a recent meeting, and teachers notified parents in an April 17 letter that May 15 would be students’ last day. A second letter, sent April 27, moved the final day up to May 8. In addition, the school day now ends at 3 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.
“This updated closing (date) is a terrible decision,” parent Anthony Parker said.
Not only is the change compromising family schedules, he said, but children are losing valuable time in the classroom. That is especially upsetting because they will be transferring to new schools next year, Parker said, and he doesn’t want them to fall behind academically.
“Once again, it’s coming down to the value of a dollar is more than the value of a child’s future,” he said.
State law requires traditional public schools to provide the equivalent of 360 minutes of daily instructional time for 177 days each school year. Schools may adjust the length and number of school days as long as the total satisfies the requirement.
But charter schools are not bound to the state’s requirement on instructional minutes, Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Ken Pastorick said.
It’s one of the many dispensations state law gives to charters. In exchange, the nonprofits that operate the charters ultimately are held responsible for the academic, financial and organizational outcomes of their schools — which can result in a renewal, extension, nonrenewal or revocation of the charter.
In the case of Lagniappe, the nonrenewal means the charter contract ends June 30, the last day of the fiscal year for schools. The nonprofit that holds the contract will still exist and can perform functions such as the school’s final audit and required tax reporting.
Pastorick said a school can close early under a few conditions.
“Lagniappe Academies would be required to complete all statewide assessment requirements,” he said.
Additionally, he said, the school must ensure that special education students have received makeup services if needed. A fall report cited the school for failing to provide special education services to some students.
The school also has to ensure there is a plan in place for students who need makeup class time this summer.
The only students who might be found on campus after May 8 would be those who need to complete state tests, according to the second letter to parents.
Board member Dan Henderson said required makeup special education services should be fulfilled by May 15. With an extra push, the requirements will be met, “particularly with some help from the state,” he wrote in an email.
Henderson said Lagniappe is working to partner with other charter schools to provide students with summer remediation.
The board has hired consultant Joe Daschbach, Lagniappe’s previous chief operating officer, to work with the teachers and to dispose of the school’s modular buildings.
The charter still owes roughly $900,000 on the buildings, which sit in a Treme parking lot, Henderson said.
Henderson said he believes the Recovery School District, which authorized Lagniappe to operate the school, should take over the buildings and the remainder of the mortgage. When a charter school closes, Louisiana law says its assets revert to the state. The law doesn’t specify what happens to debt, but Pastorick made the state’s position clear.
“No debt is transferred to the authorizer,” Pastorick said.
Parent advocate Karran Harper Royal said it was a shame the school had to close early for business reasons, especially because the administrators named in the critical report are no longer at the school.
The decision to close early hits even closer to home for Parker, whose son is finishing kindergarten at the school this year.
“The fact that they are willing to take a month of learning away from my son is unfair,” he said.