Leaders of a charter school in Baker apologized Tuesday to a roomful of parents for informing them during the last week of school that their children were being held back despite having passing grades.

But their apologies appeared to do little to repair the damage.

“I truly apologize for us, because I know it has impacted a number of you emotionally,” said Ronnie Harrison, an administrator who oversees Advantage Charter Academy. "I talked to several parents who were crying over the phone."

Harrison works for National Heritage Academies, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This for-profit charter school network runs more than 80 schools across the country, including three in Louisiana.

On Tuesday, Harrison introduced three newly hired veteran administrators for the school. Harrison also gave out his cell phone number and said he will make sure the school turns around.

“I’m holding everyone accountable,” Harrison promised. “I assure you we’re going to see changes across the board.”

Lakesha Ennis, who has three kids at the school, said that as long as Principal Ashley Chavis remains, the problems at the school will continue.

“You’re just dealing with the symptoms,” Ennis said.

Chavis, who took over the K-8 school last fall from the school’s original principal, Clifford Wallace, said little Tuesday night. Like Harrison, she insisted Advantage made a sound decision to hold back students whose reading was sub par, but failed to properly inform parents starting in December, as school policy provides.

“We made a mistake in the implementation of that decision, and we are working to fix that in the next school year,” she said.

The school backpedaled on the last day of school, saying that students whose parents weren’t informed early enough of their child’s reading problems would be allowed to advance, a violation of school policy.

The school has reported that in the end 95 students — almost a sixth of Advantage’s 600-plus students — will have to repeat their grades. That’s a big turnabout for the school. Records show that in its first three years of operation, Advantage retained just 23 students. That’s just a quarter of the 95 to be held back next year.

Several parents on Tuesday, however, said they are still are not sure whether their children will have to repeat.

Walter Morales, president of the seven-member board of directors that oversees Advantage and two other charter schools in Louisiana, said he heard eye-opening information Tuesday and promised the upset parents they will get answers, but later.

“Tonight is about, what are all your questions,” Morales said. “We won’t have all the answers tonight.”

Advantage Charter, which opened in 2014, has had dozens of students leave during this past school year. The school may well lose more.

“This meeting was just about us telling them our problems and them saying, ‘Oh well!'” said Shalona Sims, a mother with three kids at the school.

Shante D. Foster said her son reads well and is advancing to the fifth grade. She said she understands that change sometimes means there are “bumps in the road” and so she’s willing to stay for another year. But she said she’s having little luck trying to persuade other parents with kids in her son’s class to do the same.

“All of his friends that have been here since kindergarten are leaving, and they say, ‘You are crazy for staying,'” Foster said.

About a dozen parents on Tuesday shared a wide range of complaints:

  • Lack of quick communication about big issues at the school, including a recent bomb threat and a substitute teacher who was violent in class and later was fired.
  • Failure to stop bullying of students.
  • Failure to implement individualized education plans and Section 504 plans for students with disabilities or who are entitled to accommodations.
  • Principal Chavis failed to respond quickly or at all to complaining parents.
  • Unfriendly atmosphere, a change from family atmosphere under previous principal.
  • Faculty turnover.
  • Problems with bus transportation.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.