BR.firstdayofschool0122.080919 bf.jpg

Connie Brown, IBCA teacher, left, goes over cell phone rules with her students, from left seated, Morgan Gaspard, Daniel Ross and Jalon Lathers during the first day of school at a new charter high school, GEO Prep Next Generation High School Thursday August 8, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. Not pictured are Alphonse Knighten, Sariah Franklin and Tanija Hall. The new high school currently shares space with one of its feeder schools, GEO Prep Academy of Baton Rouge. It will add grades over time, though, and plans eventually to build its own campus. The new high school is a part of the expansion of charter high school options in Baton Rouge. At least two charter high schools have built new facilities this past summer.

In a move long in the making, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday adopted standards for approving and renewing charter schools, standards higher than those used by the state, though not as high as first proposed.

The changes are part of a new 49-page “Charter School Policy.”

Board President Mike Gaudet said he’s happy enough with final version to give it a try, but said it can be changed later if found lacking.

“I know that not everyone has gotten what they want in this document,” Gaudet said.

The board originally considered requiring that its 10 charter schools maintain a C letter grade if they want renewal of their operating contracts, higher than the minimum D grade the state allows. A school seeking a renewal for the first time could have dipped to a D in the last year of its contract if it had at least Cs during three of the four previous years of their initial contract.

The final version expanded that exemption. Now, a charter school seeking its first renewal needs to have a C grade or better only one of those first five years and at least a D in its final contract year.

Andrea O’Konski, chief of accountability, assessment & evaluation for the school system, said that provision was changed due to concerns that schools could drop a letter grade if there were big changes to its school grading scale. In 2018, many schools dropped a letter grade because of a tougher grading scale. O’Konski said there might be more than one year like that during the term of a charter contract.

The new policy closely mirrors the policy the Louisiana Department of Education follows for authorizing and renewing charter schools, but sets a higher bar at points.

Here are other key areas with a higher bar:

  • Applicants with charter schools already in operation somewhere in Louisiana need at least a C letter grade; the state allows a D letter grade. This would not apply to applicants with no track record or ones running charter schools in other states.
  • Seven years is the longest a charter could be renewed; the state allows a maximum 10-year renewal. The shortest renewal is three years.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson proposed increasing the minimum renewal term to four years and the maximum renewal to eight years, but she withdrew her motion after she saw she wouldn’t have the necessary votes. Charter school supporters have argued that longer renewal terms give them a better chance of persuading lenders to give money to build school buildings.

“(My motion) is based on these schools getting the financing they need for facilities,” Ware-Jackson said.

But other board members pointed out that the board had previously agreed to renew charter schools earlier than planned to help them get financing for facilities.

“In special circumstances, I believe that we will work with them,” said board member David Tatman.

There are 26 charter schools authorized in operation in East Baton Rouge Parish. Ten of them are Type 1 charters, meaning they have charters with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. At least four more Type 1 charters are set to open in 2020.

Of the 10 Type 1 charters in Baton Rouge, only six have letter grades. And of those, only two, CSAL and Mentorship Academy, have C letter grades.

The proposed charter school policy has been in the making for almost two years, but the final draft was shaped largely by an internal working group that included O’Konski, General Counsel Gwynn Shamlin and board members Tramelle Howard and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

District charter school leaders and with a wide array of local education stakeholder groups attended meetings on June 4 to give feedback on an earlier draft of the new policy.

The proposed policy grew out of frustration of some charter school applicants and supporters who argued the parish school system has been too subjective in its authorizing and oversight of charter schools. Putting such a policy in place was a key plank in several 2018 campaigns for School Board, with enthusiastic backing from pro-charter school groups.

Heretofore, the school system has followed state rules for charter schools, codified in Bulletin 126, in determining how charter school applications are judged and when they would be renewed or closed.

Bulletin 126 sets much of the table but leaves many key decisions to the discretion of local school districts.

To standardize the process, the state created a special charter school performance compact for its applicants. A few other local districts, most prominently Orleans Parish, have adopted similar policies or compacts.

The new policy allows the school system to negotiate special accountability rules for applicants seeking to renew their contracts for alternative or “turnaround” charter schools. The state recently tightened the requirements for alternative schools. But turnaround charter schools are not defined in the new policy or in state law.

The turnaround school language was added to the policy after concerns were raised at the Aug. 1 board meeting about the possibility of charter school groups seeking to turnaround an F grade school and the difficulty of doing so quickly.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.