It’s one of the more controversial aspects of the one-of-a-kind public school system in New Orleans: If the people in charge of a charter school can’t get results in the space of a few years, they can be abruptly replaced by a new set of managers.
And for at least one school, Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in Broadmoor, that approach appears to be paying off this year, according to the latest standardized test scores. Two years ago, the school was rated an F by the state. Now, after a year under the charter school group InspireNOLA, it’s up to a C.
That’s not to say these sorts of transitions, which often involve replacing all or most of a school’s faculty and staff members, don’t still have detractors. There have been similar school takeovers in New Orleans that have failed. And the school performance scores on which letter grades are based often bounce around from year to year.
But for Wilson, the results so far have been encouraging.
Jamar McKneely, the CEO of InspireNOLA, which also runs two A-rated schools on the West Bank, attributes the rise in test scores to data-based academic planning, wraparound social support services and positive reinforcement for student behavior.
“We believe that if kids feel good about themselves, they can also succeed academically," McKneely said in an interview. “And we've implemented a strong culture of raising expectations.”
Officials acknowledge it will take a lot more work to get Wilson to an A or even a B, but this year was a stark improvement. State records showed Wilson had tumbled from a performance score of 63.3 — on a 150-point scale — in 2013 to a 49.1 the following year, dropping the school from a D to an F. Things only got worse the following year: 39.7.
That prompted the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to decide against renewing Wilson’s charter, the sort of contract under which all charter schools operate. Almost every school in New Orleans is now a charter school, and all face the risk of being shut down or taken over for persistently poor academic performance.
Some parents at Wilson were outraged by the decision to hand the school over to a different charter organization. During a public meeting at the school in January 2015, parents urged the school’s leaders to fight the state’s decision, and the Wilson principal laid the blame for poor results on other schools in the city that he said refused to accept struggling pupils, according to a story published by the online news site Uptown Messenger.
McKneely said his group tried to make the transition go as smoothly as possible in 2015-16. He said they achieved an 86 percent retention rate from the previous year, meaning most of the students who had previously attended the F-rated Wilson ended up better off by staying after the charter had been revoked.
During the transition, he said, there was an effort to reassure parents that keeping children in the school was the best move for everyone involved.
“To be honest, it was a work in progress,” he added.
Lee Green, now head of the school, said the teachers worked hard to change the culture by offering rewards to students who did well. This year, he said, students got sweaters with the school's logo if they hit certain academic benchmarks. “We are changing mindsets,” he said.
Although schools under both the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District overall maintained a C grade this year, the InspireNOLA operators went against the grain by scoring big successes.
Officials called it the "highest-performing open-admissions charter network in New Orleans and Louisiana."
The organization's two foundation schools in Algiers, Alice M. Harte Charter School and Edna Karr High School, both got A's for the second year in a row. Harte’s school performance score rose to a 104.3, with 45 percent of students scoring at "mastery" or "advanced" on state assessments.
That surpassed the district and state averages of 27 percent and 33 percent, respectively, officials said.
Edna Karr had a 106.9 score, which InspireNOLA officials said made it the top-ranked "high poverty high school" in the state. For the second year in a row, the school also achieved a 100 percent graduation rate.
"When you live in a city where over 30 percent live in poverty, you have to teach that you can work hard, do the right thing and be celebrated," McKneely said. "It’s OK to be smart. You don’t have to fall victim to what's happening elsewhere in the city."