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Arise Academy in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward is part of the city’s diffuse network of nearly 80 charter schools. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

NEW ORLEANS — Frank Rabalais had big plans for the school just around the corner from his house in Gentilly Terrace, a leafy neighborhood that is one the most racially and socioeconomically diverse corners of the city. In 2016, Rabalais, a well-connected, self-described charter school proponent, had learned that the Gentilly Terrace Elementary School would be closing its doors at the end of the school year — making the campus a blank canvas for a new kind of school.

The charter school that was closing was 98 percent black. Rabalais dreamed of a diverse campus that would cater to his diverse neighborhood and draw kids from across the racial and economic chasms that have long divided New Orleans.

He wanted a school in which he, a white, middle-class New Orleans native, would feel comfortable enrolling his young children.

But there was a big problem. The state-run Recovery School District, which assumed control of nearly every public school in the city during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, already had its own plans for the Gentilly Terrace campus. The state agency wanted to use the campus to expand a successful program for children with severe emotional and mental health needs.

It seemed that if Rabalais was going to get the school of his dreams, he’d have to change the minds of officials at an organization that many felt ruled by fiat, with no democratic obligation to listen to what locals wanted. For years, residents with concerns about how their schools were being run had to appeal to a statewide board on which only one of 11 members was chosen by New Orleans voters.

Rabalais remembers that his friends and family would listen intently and nod politely, but clearly didn’t think he could pull it off.

“The problem with the Recovery School District is that they are used to telling us what’s going to happen,” Rabalais explained back in 2017. “Maybe that had a place right after Hurricane Katrina, but I think we’ve exited that period.”

Fortunately for Rabalais, on July 1, 2018, control of the city’s schools was returned to New Orleans’ elected school board. The state handed supervision of the charters it was overseeing to the Orleans Parish School Board. The locally elected body would, in theory, be much more responsive to local concerns.

Yet nearly a year later, many New Orleanians are arguing over what exactly the return to a locally-run district really means for accountability and democracy in this all-charter city, where each school or chain of schools is, by definition, privately run. Many charter proponents have hailed this new era as a golden age of education reform in New Orleans: Charter schools are continuing to innovate, while democratic control over schools has been restored.

But some residents without the resources and clout of someone like Rabalais question whether the restoration of local control will fix the problems caused by the free market approach to education. They complain that competition remains the central tenet of New Orleans’s education system, and that local control has only given more affluent families yet another advantage.

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

J. Celeste Lay, a Tulane political science professor who studies education policy, sees a pattern in who is succeeding in this new era. Lay points to a group of parents who were able to save, at least temporally, Cypress Academy, a racially and socioeconomically diverse charter school with a reputation for serving students with disabilities well. That school was set to close at the end of last school year due to budgetary issues. The school board spared it after a group of parents, many white and middle class, organized to save the school.

[pullquote author=”J. Celeste Lay, a Tulane political science professor” description=”” style=”new-pullquote”]“The groups that had a lot of access to power prior to Hurricane Katrina still have access to power now.”[/pullquote]

The school board initially agreed to run the academy for two years, only to later back down when families at mostly black campuses asked for the same deal. Cypress will be closed at the end of this school year.

“I don’t think all parent or neighborhood groups will find the same success,” Lay said. “The groups that had a lot of access to power prior to Hurricane Katrina still have access to power now. One of the differences now is that there are potentially more white and middle-class black families that are looking at the public schools as an option.”

Seizing an opportunity

The New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program, now known as the Center for Resilience, is a school of last resort. With a capacity of just under 40 children, it serves New Orleans’ hardest cases: Many of the students have experienced severe traumatic events such as gun violence, physical or sexual abuse, or the loss of a close family member. In New Orleans, where one survey found almost 20 percent of children here have witnessed a murder, the school meets a clear need.

“Public school education has long been the province of just the very poor here and we have a real opportunity to dramatically expand the base.”

In 2016, the Day Program was looking to expand, and its executive director Liz Marcell liked the Gentilly Terrace campus. The campus, built in 1914 in the California Craftsman style, exudes curb appeal and boasts a large playground. For years, Marcell’s program had been running out of rented office space and she liked the fact that the campus looked like a regular school, not a clinic. Her kids would get access to high-quality mental health services, provided in partnership with Tulane Medical School, small class sizes, and therapeutic recreation activities, all on a campus of their own.

While Rabalais questioned why such a small program needed a school designed to hold upwards of 400 kids, Marcell said space is key for a program as intensive as hers. About a third of her students have struggled to succeed even in classrooms with a student-teacher ratio as low as five-to-one. At the Day Program, students would have a teacher and paraprofessional in their own classrooms.

Marcell understands how unusual her program is but she said it’s necessary. “Over the past 20 years Louisiana has reduced its out-of-school mental health services to almost nothing,” said Marcell. “So there are no therapeutic day treatment programs other than ours in the state.”

Without Marcell’s program, more of New Orleans’ most vulnerable children would be sent to far-flung facilities across the country.

Rabalais had a very different vision for the campus. He was hoping for a second branch of the highly regarded Audubon Charter School, an Uptown school that blends a French-immersion and Montessori curriculum and has long been popular with middle-class families. Rabalais had learned through the grapevine that Audubon was looking to add a second location.

As president of the Gentilly Terrace and Gardens Improvement Association, Rabalais spearheaded the effort to get Audubon to open its new school on the Gentilly Terrace campus. Rabalais said the effort wasn’t spurred by a desire to keep the Day Program children out of the neighborhood, but was instead motivated by the rare opportunity that the vacant campus presented for a community far from the city’s handful of A-rated schools. Most of New Orleans’s best schools are located in the city’s whitest and most affluent neighborhoods. Rabalais thought his diverse community deserved the same kind of access to quality.

“I got on the assessor’s website and pulled together a list of over a dozen school board owned properties that could serve as a site for this Therapeutic Day Program,” said Rabalais, who works as a historic real estate tax-credit consultant. “Gentilly is one of the few neighborhoods without an A-rated public elementary school. We don’t have a really good public charter school option and this presented a tremendous opportunity to fix that.”

Since Katrina, the number of white and middle class students enrolled in New Orleans public schools has skyrocketed. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

The Gentilly Terrace Elementary School had once served as the heart of the community, an exclusive and affluent streetcar suburb built just after the turn of the 20th century. Until the 1970s, it was an all-white school for an all-white neighborhood. As the city changed and schools were forced to desegregate, the neighborhood also became more diverse. But many Gentilly Terrace families, black and white, began opting for the city’s robust network of private and selective public schools. After Katrina, the old elementary school reopened as a charter school run by a group backed by the University of New Orleans, but the school continued to serve a student body that was overwhelming black and low-income.

With help from his parents, Rabalais was able to send his oldest child to Trinity Episcopal School, one of the city’s most exclusive private elementary schools where tuition bills surpass $20,000. But he hoped that when his two younger kids started school, they’d be able to walk to their neighborhood school.

And more broadly, Rabalais believed opening more schools designed to attract middle class families would not only benefit people like him, but the entire city.

“Public school education has long been the province of just the very poor here and we have a real opportunity to dramatically expand the base,” said Rabalais. “It makes no sense to have all of these schools that the taxpayers don’t have a stake [in].”

As Rabalais began planning his dream for the Gentilly campus, New Orleans schools were on the cusp of change.

Related: Charter schools aren’t measuring up to their promises

For a decade, the state ran most of the schools in New Orleans from afar, after state lawmakers voted in 2005 to hand over most of the majority-black city’s public schools to the state-run Recovery School District in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. The decision was meant to help the city during a time of crisis, with a secondary benefit of uprooting corruption that had plagued the schools for years.

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, the state took control of nearly all of the city’s public schools. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

But the handover was universally opposed by the New Orleans delegation. Thousands of black teachers were fired and never got their jobs back. A new citywide choice plan scattered children around the city. Parents complained that it was impossible for them to hold anyone accountable when corruption and educational malfeasance resurfaced, this time at some of the city’s new charter schools.

In May 2016, the Louisiana legislature voted to begin the process of placing all public schools in New Orleans back under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. Over the next two years, the school board gradually regained oversight over the city’s public schools. Under the plan, nearly every public school in the city would continue to operate as an independently run, but publicly funded charter school, while the newly empowered school board would be in charge of overseeing this diffuse network of public schools.

The Recovery School District was often accused of ignoring the concerns of communities, but as an elected school board, the Orleans Parish School Board would have to be more responsive to the demands of residents. Particularly well-connected ones like Rabalais, who enjoyed insider access to state and local officials because of his seat on the board of Crescent City Schools, which runs three charter schools in the city.

In February 2017, while most of the city was engrossed in Mardi Gras festivities, Rabalais was preparing to present his plan to both local and state officials at a joint meeting. During the transition period, most of the city’s campuses were still under state control. As Rabalais recalls it, state officials at the meeting presented their plan to turn the Gentilly Terrace campus over to the Day Program as a done deal. But Rabalais sensed that he had a better chance working with the local school officials. After the meeting, he went back to his neighborhood association and asked for their help.

Gentilly Terrace is a diverse neighborhood, but Rabalais concedes that most of the neighborhood association’s members are from the wealthier and whiter side. The association’s working professionals started an email writing campaign to their school board member, Ethan Ashley. Rabalais recalls that the next time he saw Ashley, Ashley told him he’d never seen so many emails at once.

The activism worked. Rabalais succeeded in blocking the placement of the Day Program at Gentilly Terrace. The school sat vacant for a year; Rabalais eventually persuaded the newly empowered local school board to agree to place the new Audubon branch at that campus.

Brian Beabout, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans, said there needs to be a balance between this kind of activism and citywide needs. “It’s a democracy so it’s hard to say that there shouldn’t be a role for the local neighborhood, but what happens when we need an alternative school? Whose neighborhood are we going to put that school in?” he said. “The best interests of public school kids in the city won’t be served by neighborhood community engagement if it’s left unchecked.”

Rabalais acknowledges that it was probably easier for him and his community to have a say in the local school’s fate than for groups in most other communities, but he thinks that the transition back to the elected school board will mean that schools are responsive to all citizens. “Granted not everyone will have those resources,” he said. “So that’s where, hopefully, with all the schools under local control, it’ll be easier to be heard.”

Whose schools?

On a Thursday night, just five days before Christmas 2018, parents, students and alumni packed into the Orleans Parish School Board’s hearing room for a raucous meeting at which chants like “shut it down,” “erase the board” and “whose schools, our schools” echoed across the cavernous hall. Protestors were trying to convince the elected board not to turn McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School, the city’s last traditional public school, into a charter school. In the end, the board voted to do just that, creating the first large all-charter school district in the country.

The fact that the school board had the power to vote on the decision at all — and parents had a place to go to protest it — was a major milestone for New Orleans. But for many, the loss of McDonogh 35 to the charter system demonstrated the hollowness of winning back local control of the schools.

Parent activist Ashana Bigard said very little has changed since the Orleans Parish School Board resumed control of the city’s schools.

“Our voices literally have no weight.”

School closures and competition remain the cornerstones of New Orleans’s educational reform model. Over a decade into that experiment, Bigard argues, the local school board needs step away from the Recovery School District’s Darwinian model. She wants them to stop closing weak schools and instead work with educators at those campuses to improve.

Under the 2016 law that returned New Orleans schools to local control, the superintendent decides which schools close. The school board can override the superintendent, but that requires a supermajority of members to side against the superintendent.

So Bigard helped form a new coalition known as Erase the Board. Its goal is to elect an entirely new slate of school board members.

“Parents are saying, ‘Yes, we do need new administrators, we don’t need these charter school CEOs to run our schools,’” said Bigard. “But why are you closing our schools? Just like you brought them in to run it, why can’t you run it with quality administrators? Why is the idea to shuffle our children around? There’s this idea that our children need to be held accountable for adult’s mistakes. People are sick of that.”

Related: Nearly 750 charter schools are whiter than the nearby district schools

Bigard, pointing to research that says that upwards of 60 percent of New Orleans children suffer from PTSD, said that what the board needs to focus on is providing a source of stability for the city’s kids. “What helps children with trauma heal is stability, the problem with the charter school model, this competition model, is that you are constantly having schools open and close, you are constantly having this revolving door of teachers and administrations,” she said.

Bigard does think that schools need to be held accountable for subpar performance. But she doesn’t think they should be closed, especially schools with storied histories like McDonogh 35. She is currently working on setting up a website on which trained parents and high school students can review their schools. She hopes the site will help hold the city’s schools accountable to parents’ concerns, independent of the local school board.

“So when stuff happens, like if there’s a security guard or dean of students that’s constantly beating or harassing kids, they can put that up so that the public can be aware and we can put pressure on the schools to get rid of that person.” Because right now, at Orleans Parish School Board meetings, “Our voices literally have no weight,” Bigard added.

The school district’s newfound diversity has been concentrated in just a handful of schools. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

Henderson Lewis, superintendent of New Orleans public schools, says he takes pride in his record of listening to, and incorporating the voices of, all New Orleans parents. He points to several policy changes made by the school board since local control returned to the city. His administration introduced a rule that requires charter schools to set aside 25 percent of seats for students who live within a half-mile radius of the school, and passed another rule prohibiting school bus pickups before 6:05 a.m. For over a decade, parents have been complaining about how early their kids have to get to bus stops to travel across the city to the school they are assigned. The school board also worked with charters to standardize their annual calendars to help families with children scattered across the city.

“All of those changes occurred because we heard from families and made it happen,” said Lewis, who has served as the district’s superintendent since 2015. “The Recovery School District was in charge for so long that I think it’s going to take several examples before people begin to see that we are taking this district in a new direction and it’s a direction that is best for all of our students and families.”

After the Therapeutic Day School lost its battle for the Gentilly campus, Marcell opted to split the program across two sites. The day school, which has a capacity of 20, is still located in rented space on a campus in the Bywater neighborhood. The more intensive day treatment program, with a capacity of just 12, has space across town next to Children’s Hospital. While Marcell and her staff were initially apprehensive about the building, she said the students have really taken to it.

“We were worried when we acquired this space, gosh it looks really clinical, like it looks like a hospital and are the kids going to feel stigmatized for that reason,” said Marcell. But there are small rooms, which are good for the more intimate needs of her students, a basketball court, and a picnic pavilion.

The population at the Audubon Gentilly Charter School is about 70 percent black and 15 percent white; at the Audubon Charter School uptown, 48 percent of students are black and 36 percent are white.

“It’s just a better fit for us. I think if the kids had rejected it we would be having a different conversation,” she said. “But they’ve taken ownership of it. We’ve literally had a couple of kids come in and say, ‘This is great. I’m going to move in.’”

Audubon opened its Gentilly campus last August and received 1,200 applications for just 170 spots, according to Latoye Brown, Audubon’s CEO.

Audubon’s Gentilly school population, about 70 percent black and 15 percent white, looks different from the Uptown campus, where 48 percent of students are black and 36 percent are white. While the Uptown campus limits enrollment in the upper grades to students who are fluent in French (for the French program) or have high scores on an admissions test, the Gentilly campus is open to everyone. About half of the Uptown school’s students are economically disadvantaged, compared to two thirds at the Gentilly school. (In the city as a whole, 85 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.)

After the school year began, the open question was whether Audubon’s approach would work in an open-enrollment school where more students will likely need extra support. But Brown believes they’ve invested in the additional resources needed. On the Gentilly campus, each classroom has two teachers, an English-speaking instructor who works alongside a French-speaking counterpart.

If Rabalais does eventually decide to enroll his two younger children at Gentilly Terrace, the school’s popularity will present a challenge. While the new half-mile preference will benefit the family, last year only 14 percent of applicants gained a seat at Gentilly Terrace, which means that the odds for any family remain bleak.

Because even in this new era, as democracy returns and parents throughout the city fight for what they think is best for their own kids, no one is guaranteed a seat at a New Orleans public school, no matter who they know or where they live.

This story about charter schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Emmanuel Felton is a former staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from...

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