Surprising backers of one of the most unusual charter school proposals floated in the city, Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis on Thursday recommended that the School Board deny an application to create New Harmony High, a new public high school focused on training students for careers in coastal ecology.
Henderson said that rather than restricting enrollment to the city, organizers should apply to the state for a Type 2 charter so that students from across Louisiana would be eligible to attend.
“We believe New Harmony High is a very unique school,” the superintendent said. “We believe it is a great concept … we strongly support. And I will provide a letter of support as they apply (to the state) as a Charter 2 type school.”
The proposed school, which organizers hope to locate on the Mississippi River, was one of about 700 “reimagined schools” to compete last year in the XQ Institute’s Super Schools project, and was one of 10 winning designs to be awarded $10 million each.
It was the only winner in Louisiana.
The $100 million came from a nonprofit founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
The superintendent also recommended that the board deny charter applications from the Center for Resilience and Lyceum Schools but approve applications for Collegiate Academies, French & Montessori Education and IDEA Public Schools.
New Harmony High was the only application recommended by an independent evaluation team that was denied by the superintendent.
The decision caught organizers off-guard, but they vowed to quickly make whatever changes are necessary to apply to the state.
“Did we want to be a state charter school one day? Sure, one day, when the timing and resources were appropriate, we would have gone for it,” said New Harmony Head of School Sunny Dawn Summers. “But our intent was to start as an Orleans Parish school … and we put everything we had into this effort. I’m surprised by the decision. Based on all the conversations I’ve had with (Orleans) schools representatives and the recommendation of our third-party evaluator, we were expecting approval.”
The school hopes to open for the 2018-19 school year.
Nonprofit organizations seeking to charter a new school must first seek the approval of a local school board. If that charter is denied, they can apply to BESE to operate as a state charter.
Summers said organizers will now confer with their board, led by Steve Cochran, the campaign director for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition. She expects that New Harmony will still seek to be based in New Orleans, where organizers are already looking at property near the Mississippi River.
"I think our biggest concern is timing. We may not have a decision from BESE until October or November of this year," she said. "That's tough when we want to open in the fall of 2018."
Although the vision is to one day also have floating classrooms on a barge or other appropriate vessel, she said finding a building near the water, with a pier, is the first order of business.
Summers was part of the team that designed New Harmony as a school that would equip students with the skills to help restore Louisiana’s endangered coast. If approved, the school would prepare college-bound students, as well as those who want well-paying jobs that require training and certifications, but not higher degrees.
The Orleans Parish School Board will meet May 25 and will vote only if members are opposed to one or more of Henderson's charter recommendations, according to a board spokeswoman.
All the charter applications are available at www.opsb.us.