McDonogh H.S., ‘Blackboard Wars’ TV focus, to close
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — One year after the Oprah television network featured New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School in “Blackboard Wars,” hoping to depict a successful charter school turnaround, the Recovery School District is dissolving the school. All staff members will lose their jobs.
“A fresh start. This school needs a fresh start,” Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said of the school run by Future Is Now.
Struggling charter schools have three years to prove themselves and can lose their authorization to operate after the fourth. However, the school known as John Mac is closing after only two years. After alternative schools, it had Louisiana’s lowest performance score in 2013.
The school system is speeding up a long-demanded building renovation to this summer, instead of waiting until 2016. But instead of moving to interim space, as typically happens, all the students must find new schools.
Future Is Now charter chief Steve Barr said it was entirely a facilities decision, not made in response to low enrollment and poor test scores: “I think it’s a little bizarre to think this is some elaborate scheme to get us out of here. We’ve only in the middle of our second year.”
Barr said they considered multiple temporary homes for the school but could not find a good alternative. While a number of schools are in portables pending the end of a $1.8 billion facilities master plan, Barr said they were mostly startup charters and portables weren’t appropriate for a turnaround school like John McDonogh.
Future Is Now could voluntarily give up the charter, which Barr said would require a board vote. But it doesn’t matter: when the building reopens after two years, the charter will have expired. Dobard said the school would not be eligible for renewal or extension.
Dobard acknowledged that John McDonogh’s poor academic performance was an issue. He wouldn’t say the state erred in granting the charter in the first place. “Hindsight is always 20/20, but we went into it with full confidence,” he said. “Obviously we wished the school would have been performing better at this stage.”
For Future Is Now, it’s an abrupt end to a would-be feel-good tale.
Barr came to New Orleans with glowing credentials from the other LA: Los Angeles. His interest in John Mac, plus determined alumni, took the school off life support: The historic Esplanade Ridge structure was to have been shuttered.
John Mac reopened with high hopes in August 2012. It received $800,000 in startup funding, which Barr promised to use for iPads. In its charter application, it projected 525 students and a middle school. An alumni association had for years criticized what they saw as the Recovery School District’s neglect; they were extremely wary of the new management, but grateful the school had been given a second chance.
No one had really paid much attention to the brand-new charter school when the “Blackboard Wars” trailer came out in January, calling John Mac “one of the most dangerous schools in America.” It was a reference to the fatal 2003 shooting inside the high school’s gym. The show depicted Principal Marvin Thompson as a tough but compassionate leader in the “Stand and Deliver” mold. But it also showed students fighting in the halls and a young teacher bursting into tears, overwhelmed by her charges.
The footage infuriated about 50 people who came to the January charter meeting, which devolved into shouts.
In response, Future Is Now signed a memorandum of understanding with a community advisory council. Barr got the Oprah producers to take the “dangerous school” line out of the promo. He called the students “beautiful and brilliant.”
A student arts group aired a radio show protesting that the “Blackboard Wars” producers had gotten their lives all wrong — even as a non-fatal shooting outside the school in February brought back old memories.
Barr said the only financial benefit the school got from the show was mental health counseling for the teens. He and charter board members begged everyone to stop focusing on the show and start focusing on the students. But education-watchers throughout the city cringed.
The show itself faded fast — not many people get the Oprah network, and the producers never returned to film graduation. The negative impressions, however, lingered. When the main rounds of enrollment ended, only 13 freshmen had signed up for the fall. Future Is Now also gave up managing Cohen High School, a traditional Recovery School District high school that the system was phasing out. That was intended to be a financial support for the charter group but ended up costing money.
Barr said in a March interview with The Times-Picayune that New Orleans is different from Los Angeles, where his schools were filled with first-generation immigrants. NOLA kids had hope, he said, but were coming out of what he called “seven generations of crap.”
Even as the school started in Aug. 2013 with only 311 students — 70 fewer than the year before — even as the single-digit performance score came out and the financial team reported a nearly million-dollar budget deficit that followed the previous year’s $1.5 million deficit, even as salaries were cut, Barr and Thompson maintained their optimism, saying tough school turnarounds take more than one year.
Attendance was up. They considered creating a career-preparation partnership with Delgado Community College, and changing the charter’s official focus to serve who was actually coming to the school: students who were far behind, with major needs.
And they expressed frustration over the delay in renovating the building. Members of one of the city’s charter opposition groups said the building was unhealthy, infested with rats and termites, and decaying from mold. Dobard said, and repeated this week, that it wasn’t true.
The new-and-improved John McDonogh High will have a new cafeteria, a new gym and sparkling science labs and performance space. It will be energy-efficient, built to LEED Silver standards. In 2011, the cost of this renovation was budgeted at $34 million. New estimates were not immediately available.
What it may or may not be is “John McDonogh.” Many schools, post-Katrina, have double-barreled names — one for the building and another for the charter program in it. For instance, the KIPP Leadership charter inhabits the old Colton building.
Dobard said he would begin conversations about that in a few months. The priority, he said, is getting the students settled elsewhere. The school has just over 100 seniors.
All students who are not graduating will have top priority in enrollment at Recovery School District high schools and the two Orleans Parish traditional high schools, McMain and McDonogh 35. Guidance counselors are helping students with enrollment and making sure their credits are in line to graduate elsewhere. New Schools for New Orleans, which routed startup money to the charter, is helping teachers find new work and funding the student counselors.
Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, said the decision was difficult but he thought it would truly be the best for students.
“NSNO, the RSD and Future Is Now made a commitment and promise to that community about the level of academic achievement we would deliver — and we haven’t,” he said. The organization will “learn from the experience to make sure future investments work at the highest levels.”
Barr said the building severely hampered efforts to change the school — both its condition and what he considered the stigma attached to it. “You had your hands tied behind your back,” he said.
Future Is Now wanted to put in Wi-Fi and a student-run restaurant but the facility couldn’t accommodate the innovations. The bad lighting and plastic windowpanes were a downer for the students.
“There’s a lot of good memories in that school but also a lot of bad,” Barr said, referring to the 2003 shooting. “That is a hard thing to overcome.”
The charter board will consider next steps in March.
“In one way I’m excited, because there’s going to be a great school” there, Barr said.