New Orleans

Charter schools nearly destroyed this New Orleans school. Now it will become one.

The first black high school in New Orleans, McDonogh 35, was a source of pride, until the chartering of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina contributed to its academic collapse. Now, the school board hopes turning it over to a charter organization can save it

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McDonogh 35

Junior Tye Mansion goes up to bat for the McDonogh 35 Roneagles.

NEW ORLEANS — The McDonogh 35 “Roneagles” were killing their opponents on the softball field. Junior Tye Mansion had just stolen a base, and her teammates in the dugout were going wild, chanting and taunting the other team. Tye’s mom Tyra Mansion was cheering her on behind home plate.

“That’s my superstar. That’s Hollywood,” she said.

Off the field, life was less glamorous for Tye this spring. She had taken and retaken the ACT, trying to get a score high enough to get into college, with a scholarship. Her mom said Tye’s school, McDonogh 35 Senior High School, wasn’t giving her the academic support she needed to improve her score, so Mansion had to go elsewhere for help — taking Tye to programs at the local university, and paying for private tutoring.

“We may have to go five different places to get it, but we get it,” Mansion said.

McDonogh 35’s average ACT score was a 16.1 last year. That’s well below the national average, of 20.8 and not nearly high enough to get into most colleges. It’s a stark contrast to when, 15 years ago, McDonogh 35 students posted some of the highest test scores in the district. The century-old high school — the city’s first public school for black students — boasted alumni who went on to become mayors and judges.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit. McDonogh 35 was one of the few schools that weathered the storm mostly intact. It was the onslaught of charter schools that followed that contributed to the school’s near collapse in academics.

As school after school became chartered in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, McDonogh 35 High School remained under district control. Money and attention turned to the new, privately run schools. Teachers, resources and programs for McDonogh 35 disappeared. The school, once a selective magnet, became a last-resort school for some of the city’s most vulnerable students. Alumni of the historic black high school accused the school district of starving the school of resources as the district shifted its focus from the business of running schools, to the business of authorizing charters.

Last year the Orleans Parish School Board decided to turn McDonogh 35 over to a charter organization, too. Now, the city is holding its breath to see if joining the charter landscape that left the school in ruins can restore it to its former glory.

A storied past

McDonogh 35 High School opened in 1917, after black New Orleanians fought for decades to get the Orleans Parish School Board to open a public high school for black students. At the time, instruction for black students stopped at the end of fifth grade. McDonogh 35’s mascot, the “Roneagle,” is a fantastical animal born from the imagination of the school’s principal Lucien Alexis back in the 1920s. It’s an eagle fashioned entirely of iron, but still able to fly — battle-ready in the face of an overtly white supremacist society, according to McDonogh 35 historian and alumna Wanda Herbert Romaine.

“It doesn’t feed on anything soft, it lives to survive battles,” Romaine said.

In the decades following, the school became one of the city’s most prestigious educational and cultural institutions.

“To me it represents black excellence,” McDonogh 35 Alumni Association president Gertrude Ivory said. She was entering her junior year when Hurricane Betsy tore off the entire side of the old McDonogh 35 school building in 1965. But Ivory’s strongest memory is the first time she saw the McDonogh 35 football team play their archrival, Clark High School.

“We won, seven-to-six,” Ivory said. “And that was like a big deal because ‘35’ never won any football games,” she said, laughing.

Their talents were elsewhere. Many Roneagles went on to become the first African-Americans ever to hold their positions: first black city councilman, first black school board member, first black mayor of New Orleans, first black woman elected judge in the state of Louisiana.

“There was an expectation that we would succeed – always,” Ivory said.

Up until Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, McDonogh 35 had required entering ninth graders to have a high level of academic preparation. Those high test scores helped the school avoid the massive state takeover of Orleans Parish schools after the storm, when a new state-run Recovery School District handed nearly every school in the city to charter operators.

McDonogh 35

A student jumps off a bus to enter McDonogh #35 Senior High School before the start of the school day March 19, 2008 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The home of the Roneagles was also one of few school buildings left relatively unscathed, physically, but the storm had a profound impact academically. McDonogh 35 dropped its admission requirements to make room for hundreds of high school students who came back after the floodwaters receded. They came with many more challenges, less academic preparation, and residual trauma from the devastating hurricane. Test scores dropped.

By 2019, the school had a student body with some of the biggest challenges in the city. Today, more than 90 percent of McDonogh 35 students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. According to staff, the school took on an extraordinary number of students who are overaged and behind in credits. Staff say many of McDonogh 35’s students entered ninth grade at 17 years old, or older. In 2018, nearly half the student body had to attend summer school to make up credits.

“I can go down a list of challenges that the school has faced,” Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis said. He noted that many of the challenges began well before he came on in 2015. “Now that the school is transitioning, it’s going to give it a fresh start.”

But some say the Orleans Parish School Board didn’t respond adequately to the new population of students in the school after Katrina, that it left problems unsolved and created instability as it turned its attention to charter schools.

The district had been vocal about shifting its focus to overseeing charter schools and shedding its former role in directly running schools. “Rather than operating schools, it is our job to approve who has the privilege to operate a school,” Lewis said at an October 2018 press conference.

Lewis cut more than 40 positions from the district’s central office between 2015 and 2018, about a third of all central office employees. Lewis said streamlining his central office staff allowed more money to flow to classrooms and schools. McDonogh 35 alumni and staff said it meant there were fewer central office staff to help them solve problems at the school. Teachers went without curriculum support at the district level, they said. Classrooms went without certified teachers or materials. Students point to the fact that last year, the ninth grade class went almost the entire school year with substitutes in Algebra.

At the same time, the district was spending less and less money per student at McDonogh 35. Spending fell from $15,594 per student in 2008-09 to $11,651 per student in 2016-17, the most recent state data available.

“Orleans Parish wasn’t taking care of the school as it should have been,” Ivory said.

Related: Marching in Mardi Gras, a New Orleans school that once struggled shows off

Speaking on background to protect their jobs, McDonogh 35 staff said the most frustrating thing was the revolving door of principals. McDonogh 35 has had five principals in the last six years.

United Teachers of New Orleans President Jim Randels said yearly leadership changes made it hard to plan or carry out improvement efforts, and impacted instruction. “Frequently you would be planning for the next school year with a current administrator, and then a new administrator would be named, and everything had to be thrown out,” Randels, who also taught part-time at McDonogh 35 until 2015, said teachers told him.

In 2018, the board hired Harold Clay as executive director of the school and Jennifer Chapman as principal. Many students said they like the direction the school is headed under Clay. Clay has 11 years’ experience in school administration. He was formerly the principal of Edna Karr High School. But according to state records, neither Clay nor Chapman has the correct certification required to hold a position as a principal or educational leader at a Louisiana public school. Chapman is certified to teach middle and high school English and French. Clay does not have a teaching certificate. He has a master’s degree in social work, and an expired social worker’s license.

Lewis said the current administration is eligible and qualified to hold their positions, noting that Clay moved his last school’s letter grade from a B to an A.

Lewis said he’s aware the leadership changes have been frustrating. He said many of the transitions have been due to personnel issues, or a principal taking another job. When it comes to long-term vacancies, Lewis points out that all New Orleans schools are struggling to fill vacancies. The district loses about 900 teachers every year.

“It has been a challenge at McDonogh 35, but it has been a challenge even at some of the higher-performing schools,” Lewis said.

After outcry from alumni like Ivory, the district increased funding for the school in the last few months, and is now running the school at a deficit. But Lewis attributes many of McDonogh 35’s problems to poor instruction.

“As you do any research on student academic achievement, the number-one predictor for student success is going to be a high-quality teacher,” he said.

Lewis said as the school board closed or chartered its direct-run schools, the charter operators scooped up the best teachers. Under state law, the school board had to offer employment to the teachers who were not hired by the charter operators, so they ended up at other direct-run schools, like McDonogh 35. Over the years, as more schools closed or were chartered, Lewis said, teachers with low performance ratings ended up concentrated at McDonogh 35. Turning the school into a charter will allow the new administration to let go of those teachers if they want to, and build the staff from scratch.

“McDonogh 35 is finally going to get a fresh start,” he said. “Being a very historic institution, and an institution that has educated so many of our leaders across this nation, it’s really important that McDonogh 35 is restored to academic excellence.”

Change, but what kind?

At an Orleans Parish School Board school board meeting last December, Lewis was seated on the dais touting a major victory for his administration. He had finally found a charter network he believed was qualified and willing to take on McDonogh 35.

(The 2018-19 school year marked the first time since Katrina that all New Orleans schools were back under the control of the local board, although, as charters, the schools will keep their autonomy.)

“We have engaged our students, our families and our parents as we continue to make the best decision for McDonogh 35,” Lewis announced at the December meeting. “Because of the legacy of McDonogh 35, as superintendent of schools … tonight I am siting InspireNOLA charter school for McDonogh 35.”

He could barely be heard over the shouting, boos and jeering from the public that filled the boardroom and spilled out into the hallway. Alumni, parents, students, staff, community members, and even activists from out of state had gathered to protest McDonogh 35’s handover to a charter school.

“Please do not do what you have done to all the other schools in New Orleans,” New Orleans parent Marika Bonner James pleaded during hours of public comment following Lewis’ speech.

Related: How New Orleans leaders built a segregated city

Many McDonogh 35 alumni are ideologically opposed to charter schools for the same reason other critics oppose them. They see them as taking away voters’ right to have a say in how schools are run. “This superintendent and board have relinquished their responsibility to the charter management groups, who operate schools like businesses,” Ivory said.

McDonogh 35

McDonogh #35 Senior High School graduates stand at their commencement at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on May 14, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was one of the last remaining traditional public schools in the city.

But in New Orleans, the turn towards charter schools has also posed a deeper, more existential threat. Alums feared the erasure of the unique Roneagles culture, a through-line of black intellectualism, ambition and resistance that goes back to McDonogh 35’s founding in 1917. Many charter groups came in wanting to change the culture of the schools they took over. They saw the old cultures as dysfunctional and the reason for low test scores. They hired new staff, changed the uniforms, taught their own slogans and values, and set their own rules.

InspireNOLA is a home-grown charter network, but its critics said that doesn’t mean the group has been innocent of cultural transgressions. When the charter group took over the historic Eleanor McMain High School in 2017, the school still had a colorful mural that had been added to by each graduating class since 1986. InspireNOLA painted over it, wiping out decades of student work.

It was the kind of thing that made McDonogh 35 alumni anxious about how their school might change under InspireNOLA.

Performance first

In a crowd, you can usually pick out InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely by the jeans and big white sneakers he wears like a uniform. McKneely is one of only a few African-American charter leaders. He’s also one of the few charter leaders who taught in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.

“I lost my job just like everyone else,” McKneely said, referring to the mass layoff of New Orleans teachers after Hurricane Katrina. Seated in his office in a cube-like building on the city’s West Bank, McKneely said, yes, his schools have had more success than most New Orleans charters. His network boasts several of New Orleans’ rare A and B ratings on the state grading system. But sometimes, McKneely said, his history and his test scores don’t matter.

“It’s like the fact that I’m working in charters, I’m part of the enemy,” he said.

McKneely has been the target of slights and insults in very public settings, like parish school board meetings. But he said he shrugs it off, and tries to remind himself why he’s doing the work. Part of that work involves getting community feedback. He’s said he’s talking with alumni about preserving McDonogh 35’s culture. He’s held town-hall-style events with the community and has been meeting with the alumni association. But it’s clear his main focus is boosting academic performance.

“The school has a very strong legacy and a sense of pride,” McKneely said. “But when you get down to the heart of the data, you understand where our job and our responsibility is.”

Like Lewis, McKneely said much of it comes down to hiring the right teachers. McKneely said he’s also bringing in a better curriculum that’s more aligned to the state tests. He’s promised to add ACT prep, more Advanced Placement courses, and maybe even a STEM program.

“The students are definitely trying to do the best that they can. Unfortunately we just have to raise the bar higher to put them in positions to be successful,” he said.

Back on the softball field, McDonogh 35 sophomore Taylor Pittman was celebrating the win against the Carver Rams. She was also feeling optimistic about the rest of her high school career. She’d heard the new management will bring better teachers, programs and more challenging course work. But she was determined the school’s culture wouldn’t fall victim to the efforts to improve test scores

“I’m gonna explain to the freshman that come, ‘Hey, this is how things go at McDonogh 35. This is what we do,’” she said.

Alumni say they’ll be watching closely, too.

“You could try to give it fire, you can try to freeze it, and you can try to dismantle it, we will always come back to being that iron eagle,” McDonogh 35 alumna and school historian Romaine said.

Alumni are working with InspireNOLA to create courses on the history of the school. And some of them say they’re still not giving up on the larger, long-term goal of bringing McDonogh 35, and all public schools, back under the OPSB — unchartering them, so to speak.

It may seem impossible, given the power of charter schools in this city.

But, then again, the McDonogh 35 Roneagles are known for beating the odds.

This story about McDonogh 35 was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with New Orleans Public Radio, WWNO. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Jess Clark has spent the last four years covering education for a public radio audience. She is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio… See Archive

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