The Orleans Parish school district is looking for a private operator to phase out McDonogh 35 Senior High School this fall, and it wants another firm to open a new school in its place with the same name, mascot and colors.
But the new school won’t be a charter. The School Board describes it as a “non-charter contract” to be overseen by the school district.
In a news release, the district described the move as a way to “reinvigorate” the historic high school.
McDonogh 35, the first public high school for African-Americans in Louisiana, was highly regarded for decades. But it has struggled academically since Hurricane Katrina.
“This is about guaranteeing the legacy of instructional, academic and community excellence that McDonogh 35 has long been known for,” School Board Vice President Leslie Ellison said in the release. “I am proud to stand with Superintendent (Henderson) Lewis as we make this important initial step toward securing the future of this remarkable school.”
The plan is unusual even for New Orleans, where schools start up, turn over management teams and shut down every year, and most public schools are independent charters open to anyone in the city.
Lewis was not available to discuss the plan.
The next 18 months or so may rank among the most pivotal in the history of public education in New Orleans.
McDonogh 35 is one of the last four schools run directly by the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board. Two of the others, Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School and Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology, will convert to charters this summer. One, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, is closing.
With the phase-out of McDonogh 35, the elected board will not actually run any schools — a novel approach in the country. With the exception of McDonogh 35 and a program in the city's youth detention center, every school will be a charter.
In its request for applicants to shut down the current school and to open the new one, the School Board wrote that its “core role is to serve as the authorizer, regulator and oversight entity for public education in New Orleans.”
Under the plan outlined by the school district, McDonogh 35 won’t accept ninth-graders next year and must close within three years. The school will shrink as older students graduate.
Starting in 2019, another firm will operate the “non-charter contract” school. It will grow a grade each year, starting with ninth grade.
The new school must keep the McDonogh 35 name, its maroon and gold colors, and the roneagle, the school’s legendary mascot.
The request also states the district’s goals are to increase socio-economic diversity at the school and attract private school students. About 95 percent of the school’s current 837 students are classified as economically disadvantaged, and 13 percent of them have disabilities, according to state records.
The closing school and the new one could share the same building for a few years. McDonogh 35 moved from its bat-infested home on Kerlerec Street to a new facility in the St. Bernard neighborhood in 2015.
The decision to shut McDonogh 35 and start over comes after several failed attempts to charter it.
In 2015, a group of alumni wanted to convert the high school to a charter, but they didn’t complete the application process.
In the past two years, the district has sought groups to take over the school. Last spring, central office employees were involved in a failed attempt to charter it and all of the other remaining traditional schools. Two of the administrators involved in that effort now work at McDonogh 35, according to its website.
The school's seventh and eighth grades were phased out over two years, ending in 2017. That year, the high school’s state-assigned letter grade dropped from a C to a D.
The district has released two requests for proposals seeking firms to handle the two different jobs — one to phase out the current school and another to open the new one. It doesn’t want the same operator to do both.
Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, said the requests for proposals appear to seek options for the school, potentially with an eye toward restoring admissions requirements.
McDonogh 35 used to have admission requirements; they were dropped after Katrina, and test scores fell.
“I believe Mac 35 will drive a conversation at the school board level and in the public around selective enrollment versus non-selective enrollment schools,” Shirley said. “If the idea is that they want to be more selective in nature, charter law does not allow them to do that.”
In the past, struggling schools have been handed over to charter operators to turn them around. Shirley said they’ve found it’s difficult to turn around a failing high school.
“Remember, as charters, you only have so much time,” she said. “I think there would be plenty of people to tell you that at the high school level that’s almost impossible to do.”
Under the School Board's plan, the firm handling the phase-out will hire its own staff.
A spokeswoman for the district said officials don’t know when the 136 current employees will have their last day at work, how much the plan will cost or whether the School Board would need to approve the contracts. All that depends on the proposals received, she said.
Both firms to be selected must outline the curriculum they plan to use, how they will serve special education students, and which types of diplomas they will provide.
They must outline their budgets, their management fee, how they will account for government funds and how they plan to involve alumni.
The proposals are due at the end of March; the district wants to have a full plan in the spring.