A number of New Orleans educators and parents are so passionate about education that they opened charter schools not knowing where they would be in a few years.
Like some other established charters, they plan to add a new grade level each year, so they often are seeking new, expanded space — sometimes on a year-to-year basis.
Next year, three relatively young charter schools will find themselves in new facilities, and another school that’s been closed by the state is facing financial problems if it can’t unload the portable buildings it bought. And that doesn’t take into account the temporary quarters other charters occupy while their primary campus is being renovated under a $1.8 billion post-Katrina rebuilding program.
Such is the somewhat nomadic life of a charter school in New Orleans these days.
Shifting campuses doesn’t appear to correlate to academics, either for better or worse.
In 2012, Encore Academy, now a C school, opened and shared space, taking the upper floor of an already-occupied school. Bricolage Academy opened the next year in rented space at a synagogue. And four-year-old Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, also currently a B school,* now splits its student body between two churches two miles apart.
And all three have outgrown those spaces.
Lycée is still figuring out its plans for next year.
Parent Amy George-Hirons says she doesn’t worry too much about location because the school is a good fit for her 8-year-old son, Armor.
But she says the issue is causing a lot of angst for many Lycée parents.
“Is there a magic pile of fantastic extant physical buildings that various schools can draw from as their schools expand?” she asks.
“And so we are all trapped in this need to act fast and grab what comes available right away and then think about exactly how we’re going to make use of it later,” George-Hirons said.
It’s not uncommon for charter schools to have trouble securing facilities, said Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley.
State and nationwide, many charters are located in districts with intact centralized public school systems, which mean little room exists for new schools.
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The moves don’t appear to have a significant effect on achievement. Morris Jeff Community School, a charter that’s been in several facilities over the last three years, has earned a steady C letter grade from the state and continues to be a top choice for many prospective parents. While many of the A-rated schools in New Orleans have remained in their locations for years, they also have existed for much longer than these young charters. Still, A-rated Audubon Charter School has been in temporary quarters while its main campus undergoes renovations.
George-Hirons said in New Orleans, the increase in charters “pits the needs of different growing schools against each other.”
Despite the fact that charters occupy a majority of the public school facilities in the city now, certain types of charters aren’t guaranteed space. The state has created five types of charters, depending on how they’re formed and who approves them.
Both Encore and Bricolage are Type 1 charters, which are overseen by the local school board and have to find their own facilities. Lycée is a Type 2 state-authorized charter and is also responsible for finding its own space.
So schools have to get creative.
Encore has already moved into temporary space, purchased an old school and is working with a national nonprofit to renovate its recent purchase for a fall opening.
Bricolage’s next stop is an old Catholic elementary school that founder Josh Densen has had his eye on since the charter school opened. The campus has acted as a temporary home for multiple charters.
“I would tell you that I think there is a hidden advantage to not having a facility before you open,” he said.
That’s because parents are more likely to commit to the ideology and mission of the school, rather than a location.
“I do not feel a sense of competition” for facilities, he said.
The school’s long-term plans are still a work in progress, but next school year, they will be on the Holy Rosary campus. Bricolage has 151 students this year in kindergarten and first grade and will grow to 235 next year as they add second grade.
“One of the advantages of a place like Holy Rosary is we know we can grow in it,” he said.
But that doesn’t always last. Lycée has grown out of room.
Lycée’s board met earlier this month to discuss what to do with its expanding student body. The French-curriculum charter school put earnest money down on the old School Board-owned Priestly school — but that dilapidated building won’t be ready for students in the fall, even if it changed hands today.
School Leader Keith Bartlett said Priestly is still in the school’s long-term plans, but they are considering renting a third building in the interim.
In fact, the board gave Bartlett the authority to sign a lease on a building in Mid-City should it pass muster, a move that upset some parents because the meeting was held the first day students returned from spring break.
It is unclear if the board gave proper public notice of its meeting, which means someone could sue to void the actions taken at the meeting, The Lens reported. But even before that report, the school had already scheduled another meeting to discuss the same issues — and likely revote — so parents could have more time to prepare.
It’s possible Lycée could eventually use an arrangement similar to Encore. Encore is selling its building to a third-party that can help secure financing for the renovation, and then the charter school leases back the space.
“The facility-financing piece is still difficult for charters across Louisiana,” Roemer Shirley said.
In fact, five-year-old Lagniappe Academies, which the state has decided to close over concerns with its special education services, purchased its own modular buildings to start its school. Now the closing charter must sell those buildings in order to avoid defaulting on its nearly $1 million loan.
That’s one reason third-party arrangements, such as Encore’s, may become more popular in the city. If Encore were to lose its charter, the building’s owner could rent it to another charter school.
Despite the stress of not knowing where her son’s school will be year-to-year, George-Hirons is confident he will receive a good education.
“The high quality of his teachers, the rigor of the curriculum and the deliberate way in which the administration is proceeding have me convinced that no matter what physical space he ends up in next year he’s going to be just fine,” she said.
But she hopes the system of having to react quickly to property will change.
“It is stressful and I wish there were a better way to deal with these space needs,” George-Hirons said, “but there doesn’t seem to be any other way to deal with it.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Lycee’s letter grade. Lycee received a B from the state last year.