Traditional school districts work to overcome loss of students, money going to charter schools _lowres (copy)

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Advantage Charter Academy in Baker, La.

A local charter school sparked a backlash when it informed many parents that their children would have to repeat their grade level — even if they had good grades in all their courses.

Two days later, Advantage Charter Academy in Baker backpedaled.

On May 24, the final day of school and two days after those surprising final report cards, Advantage announced it had moved too fast. The school had failed to inform many parents early enough that their children’s low reading performance was grounds to hold their children back, it said, which was a violation of school policy.

Consequently, Advantage would let some students advance after all “if (parents) so choose,” though it would still urge that some students repeat to “master reading skills at grade level.”

The school’s seven-member nonprofit board of directors, Louisiana Achievement Charter Academies, has scheduled a parent meeting on July 11 at 6 p.m. to discuss the retention controversy. The meeting is to be held at the school, located at 14740 Plank Road in a former Walmart.

In the meantime, much remains unclear about what happened and is yet to happen at the K-8 charter school.

Leah Nixon, a spokeswoman for the school, said that in the end 95 students — almost a sixth of Advantage’s 600-plus students — will have to repeat their grades. And about 70 students are attending summer school now, she said.

The Advocate's inquiries about what happened at the Baker charter school this year were routed to Nixon in Grand Rapids, Mich., the headquarters of Advantage’s for-profit parent company, National Heritage Academies.

The spokeswoman ignored requests for a telephone interview, responding only via emails.

Nixon wouldn't say how many students were initially told they’d have to repeat before the school backpedaled and gave some parents the option of having their child advance to the next grade.

She gave conflicting statements about what had changed at the school that caused so many students to be retained at the end of this school year.

Nixon said at first that “we have reinforced our promotion and retention policies,” and that this change was prompted by Louisiana’s high reading expectations.

“Our goal is to have students reading on grade level by third grade, with comprehension and fluency being equally important,” Nixon said.

But a review of Advantage’s student handbook as well as its pupil progression plan, the typical home of school promotion and retention policies, showed neither of those documents have been changed in at least two years.

Nixon now says that school policies haven't changed after all: “To be clear, we have not changed our policies.”

That leaves open the question of why the number of students retained was so dramatically higher than its been in the past if there wasn't any change in the school's policies on retention and promotion.

Records show that in the entire first three years of operation, Advantage retained just 23 students total. That’s just a quarter of the 95 to be held back next year.

In 2017-18, the most recent school year stats are available, only 20 public schools in Louisiana held back more than 95 students.

School Principal Ashley Chavis did not respond to requests for comment. Neither would Board President Walter Morales, though he said he may speak after the board meets June 11.

National Heritage Academies, the for-profit parent company of Advantage, operates more than 80 charter schools in nine states, including three in Louisiana.

NHA’s first school, Inspire Charter Academy, opened in 2010 in Baton Rouge. Two more NHA schools opened in 2014; Advantage in Baker, and Willow Charter Academy in Lafayette. All three have D academic letter grades from the state Department of Education.

Advantage is not alone in retaining more kids.

Nixon said 100 of Willow’s 600-plus students will be held back next year. That Lafayette school retained just 15 students in its first three years of operation.

Nixon said the tougher approach to student retention grows out of early reading research.

“Students who struggle with reading and comprehension invariably struggle with other subjects,” Nixon said. “We feel we must act immediately when it comes to ensuring our students are successful in the classroom.”

Nixon would not, however, provide specific minimum thresholds for the reading performance that determined whether children were eligible for promotion. She described only the general areas the school reviewed in making those calls.

“We use a variety of metrics that are grade-appropriate to evaluate student reading, including fluency, regular homework assignments, comprehension, words-per-minute, in-class assignments, classroom testing, standardized state testing and other metrics,” Nixon said.

Many of Advantage students are undoubtedly behind in reading.

Last fall, Advantage students in grades kindergarten to three took DIBELS, an assessment developed by the University of Oregon that gauges early literacy skills.

Advantage kindergartners did relatively well, with almost two-thirds scoring on grade level or above, beating their peers across the state. But upper grades didn’t do as well. In third grade, only 12 percent of Advantage students were on grade level or above on DIBELS, compared with 57 percent statewide.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.