Charter school leaders set to take control of McDonogh 35 High School later this year laid out their plans last week for turning around the struggling school, pledging to improve academic performance and to keep parents well-informed about school issues.

Jamar McKneely, chief executive of the charter school network InspireNOLA, said at a town hall meeting Wednesday that he plans to introduce ACT preparation and advanced placement classes starting in ninth grade, to require struggling students to enroll in after-school tutoring and to increase opportunities for students to tour colleges outside of New Orleans.

He also committed to hiring certified teachers and continuing to use the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana state pension plan.

He asked parents and school supporters, some of whom had fought against the Orleans Parish School Board's move to hand over the school to a charter operator, to help him.

McDonogh 35, whose 4-year-old campus in the former St. Bernard housing complex neighborhood, is the last school directly run by the OPSB to be handed over to private management.

"It's time for the differences to end," McKneely told the crowd. "We have an academic model that can hopefully work if we have the support where we’re focusing our energy on the right things, on what we need to do for our students, and leave the politics behind."

The meeting, which drew about 50 people, was organized by McDonogh 35 alumni and sought to bring together officials from Inspire NOLA with parents, alumni and others with ties to the historic school, which has seen student performance decline in recent years.

The school, which enrolls 450 students, has earned a D grade from the state for the past several years. In addition to poor test scores, parents have complained about inexperienced teachers, truancy and fights erupting in the hallways.

McKneely noted that of 30 students he interviewed recently, none said they would recommend the school to a peer or sibling, and only two said they felt ready for life outside of high school once they graduate. The school's average ACT score is 16.7, he said, well below the city and state averages of 18.6 and 19.3, respectively.

The highest possible ACT score is 36.

"I'm concerned when I look at the youth currently at this school," he said. "They will tell you that they don't feel like they're prepared."

As part of his pitch, McKneely pointed to InspireNOLA's record. The organization runs six public schools in New Orleans, enrolling more than 4,500 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

He stressed the group's success with Edna Karr High School in Algiers, an A-rated school, and Eleanor McMain Secondary in Uptown, a B school.

Just 37 percent of the city’s high schools earned an A or B grade in the past school year, McKneely noted.

InspireNOLA also has experience transforming failing schools, he said. It took over Andrew Wilson Charter in 2015, bringing the F-rated elementary school in Broadmoor up to a C last year. Other InspireNOLA schools are Alice M. Harte Elementary and Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary in Algiers and McDonogh No. 42 in the 7th Ward.

Next year, with the school district's other direct-run schools set to close or convert, the system will be run solely by charters and other nonprofit organizations.

For most of its history, McDonogh 35 — which opened in 1917 as Louisiana’s first public high school for black students — enjoyed a strong reputation and graduated many notable local leaders, including former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial and Judge Israel Augustine. However, its reputation dimmed in recent years as its academic achievement began to slip.

The school was last named a “School of Academic Achievement” by the Louisiana Department of Education in 2001, and it had dropped to a D letter grade by the time the state released 2016-17 school performance scores.

Leaders have promised that when InspireNOLA takes over next school year, the charter management company will preserve the school's name, as well as other aspects of its legacy, including its colors and mascot.

Many parents blamed the School Board for not providing resources needed to give the flailing school new life, but some still thought the district was a better steward than a charter network.

Jason Hughes, a member of the alumni organization, said he was disappointed with the decision to hand the school over. However, he said, "OPSB has spoken. Our presence here tonight doesn't signify we agree with the decision, but a decision has been made." 

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.