Avoyelles School Board may approve Red River Charter
Mon, 12/26/2016 - 1:02pm
Raymond L. Daye
Perhaps the third time really is the charm for Red River Charter Academy.
In a special meeting to negotiate with RRCA officials, Avoyelles School Board members finally seemed willing to approve granting RRCA a charter -- something they have rejected thrice. However, there is one major obstacle to board approval -- whether the school will start at 6th grade or 7th.
“Until two weeks ago, it has been you against us,” RRCA board member Ken Bordelon told School Board members. “If you approve this charter, this will be a district school. It will be more similar to LaSAS than to Avoyelles Public Charter.”
The proposed charter school applied to the School Board the past three years and was rejected each time. It has been to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education three times, being rejected the past two years and awaiting a BESE decision in January on its current application.
State Superintendent John White has instructed RRCA and the School Board to negotiate an end to their stalemate.
“In so many words, he said BESE really doesn’t want to make a decision on this,” Avoyelles Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said. “He pretty much told us that if the School Board refuses to negotiate with Red River, BESE will give them the charter. He told Red River that if they refuse to negotiate with the School Board that BESE won’t give them a charter.”
In short, White was telling both parties he would side with the one willing to negotiate to resolve their differences.
If approved, the school would start in the 2018-19 school year, giving RRCA one year to prepare a site for its temporary home while improvements are made for a permanent school.
Battle of 6th grade
With most other issues resolved or close to agreement, the battle between the two parties is focused on 6th grade.
RRCA officials argued that the school would only have 56 6th graders each year. The school district has between 400 and 450 6th graders each year.
RRCA Board President Pat Ours said RRCA has the potential to recover “lost” students for the public school district.
She said 30 percent of RRCA’s enrollment applicants are enrolled in parochial schools and about 3 percent are Avoyelles students attending school in neighboring parishes of Rapides, Evangeline and St. Landry. There are also several that are currently being home schooled.
Ours said the school’s education model is dependent on having its students beginning in 6th grade, to address social and emotional issues that also affect academic achievement.
Ours said RRCA’s research on the best configuration for students in grades 7 and 8 found the K-8 model to be the best, by far.
“The 6-12 school was a distant second, followed by the 7-12 school,” she said.
She cautioned that because those results included private schools “with a lot of resources,” that it cannot be said with certainty whether those results were due to the grade configuration of the schools or other factors.
Dauzat said that problems with students “are exaggerated in the 7th and 8th grades,” and not as much in 6th. The largest “exodus” of students from the public schools is between 6th and 7th and 7th and 8th grades.
RRCA board member Brad Augustine said the proposed school’s program aims to “take them in 6th to prepare them for 7th to avoid those problems.”
The school’s economic plan calls for two sections per grade level. If the 6-8 school is approved, that would be two 28-student classes per grade, for a first-year enrollment of 168.
The school will add a grade every school year, but the 6-8 students will be completely separated from the older students at the school, Ours said.
9th not an option
RRCA Executive Director Stephanie Moreau said starting as a 7-9 school is not an option because of the additional cost of offering high school classes to the 9th graders. With one year under its belt, the school would be able to cover those start-up costs for its high school program, she added.
To meet its budget requirements under a 7-8 configuration, the school would have to open with three sections of 7th graders and three sections of 8th graders. While that would not be a change in the school’s first-year impact, RRCA would not eliminate sections in its second and subsequent years, meaning it would have three sections per grade level instead of two.
That change would mean that in five years, RRCA would be a 7-12 high school with 504 students instead of a 6-12 high school with 392.
Board member Van Kojis said the charter school should accept the APSB’s “model” of K-6 schools and 7-12 schools.
“Even if the vote is 8-1 for you, I will not vote for a 6-8 charter school,” Kojis said.
Actually, the APSB “model” for middle school education was to group 6th grade with 7th and 8th. That changed when the board closed the middle schools, sending 6th to the elementaries and 7th and 8th to high schools.
Dauzat said he told White that the sticking point between the two parties was over whether the school would start as a 6-8 or 7-8.
White texted Dauzat and said he had the same concerns and would support a decision to start as a 7-8 charter school.
Ours said White told RRCA officers that he would prefer the school mirror the school district’s configuration of schools. However, after they explained the reasons behind their 6-8 program, White said he understood why they wanted to start with 6th grade.
RRCA Board Member Alissa Piazza-Tassin reminded APSB members that educational experts reviewed the school’s plan, with the 6-8 configuration, the past three years. Last year and this year, the BESE’s independent evaluator gave RRCA high marks, even stating that it has “raised the bar” for all future charter applications.
At some point during the debate, board members said the current alignment of grades was established by the federal court’s decision to place 6th grade with the elementary schools and 7th and 8th in the high schools.
Allen Holmes, the plaintiff in the desegregation case, addressed the meeting, saying he wanted to correct that statement.
“Moving 7th and 8th to the high schools was a financial issue, not a desegregation issue,” Holmes said, noting that the School Board decided it could not afford to keep three middle schools open. “I was against that proposal.
“The desegregation expert, because he was paid by the School Board, pushed for 7th and 8th to go to the high schools and 6th grade to go to the elementaries because that is what the School Board wanted.”
Holmes said he is not taking a position for or against Red River Charter Academy, “but I do not want anyone to feel that they have a monopoly on education in this parish.”
Holmes concluded his comments by expressing his disappointment at voter rejection of a sales tax to improve teacher salaries.
“I am receiving complaints from parents whose children do not have certified teachers in their classroom,” he said. “That is a shame.”
Other issues addressed during the meeting included a possible site for Red River Charter.
Ours pointed out that state law requires the School Board to offer unused district property to the charter school. It does not require the charter school accept that offer.
RRCA has an understanding with the owners of the Garan plant building to use that site as its permanent school building.
RRCA officials have also toured the Hessmer High School elementary building -- currently housing the alternative school for expelled/long-term suspended students -- and the closed Mansura High School buildings.
Ours said the RRCA board will consider all of its options. One possibility would be to lease the Hessmer building as a temporary site “because it is move-in ready,” and purchase the Mansura site because it has the space for future expansion.
The Mansura buildings are appraised at $595,000, but that does not include the building known as the “6th Grade Building” on the opposite side of the street from the bulk of the campus.
Another option would be to stay with a previous plan to purchase and renovate the Garan building to serve as the school.
The closed Fifth Ward High School property is not deemed suitable, primarily because it is less centrally located than the Marksville, Hessmer and Mansura sites.
APSB board members noted that leasing or selling the Hessmer elementary wing would require the board to find another site for the alternative school, which would be an additional cost to the board.
Board members were satisfied with RRCA’s selection process, which will be an open lottery from all applicants. The school will have a goal of a white/black ratio of 50/50, and no more than 55 percent of either race.
There was some discussion over limiting the number of students that could be taken from any school to attend RRCA. Ours said the only way to do that would be to change the type of charter school it will be, “and that would allow us to ‘cherry pick’ at will. We prefer the open lottery system, which will be purely random.”
She said LaSAS is not limited to accepting only so many students from any one high school, and it uses a student interview in its selection process.
The school also promised not to “raid” any school of its best teachers. No more than two teachers from a school could transfer to the school.
As the authorizing entity, the School District would have control over those transfers.
RRCA would have full control over its curriculum and teaching style, Dauzat said.
He noted the reason to have a charter school is for them to be able to do something different.
“If they have the same caliber of students as the other schools and they succeed, then maybe we can learn something from them that will help the students in the other schools,” Dauzat added.
Dauzat said another concern with a charter school is that they can send discipline and academic problem students back to the public schools by “encouraging parents to ‘voluntarily’ pull their child out of the school to avoid having an expulsion on their record.”
Ours said those are unfounded concerns.
Augustine said one reason RRCA has been trying to be chartered under the school district is because parents have been victims of that type of activity with other schools. He said it will not happen at RRCA.
“Our purpose is to allow access to a quality education for any child, regardless of where they are zoned to attend or other factors,” Ours said. “That is why we want an open lottery to determine those enrolled.
“We would never counsel a parent to take their child out of school for academic reasons,” Ours said “It would be our responsibility to address those academic issues.”
She said the only reason a student would be expelled would be for “long-term behavior issues that nobody had been able to get a handle on.”
Because the public school district is still under federal court supervision, U.S. District Judge Dee Drell would have to approve the new school before it could open even if the the board and RRCA resolve all differences and want to move forward in opening the school.