Charter Schools in the South: Getting Parent Buy-In
The big push for charter schools in Louisiana started after Hurricane Katrina. The state’s Recovery School District took over most of the public schools in New Orleans, and quickly issued charters.
With charter school enrollment up to nearly 3 million nationwide last year, Louisiana was still among the states adding the most students.
The Recovery School District has moved on to Baton Rouge, but, without a hurricane scattering teachers and students, charters really have to get parents to buy into the alternative they’re selling. It starts with pounding the pavement.
The big push for charter schools in Louisiana started after Hurricane Katrina. The state’s Recovery School District took over most of the public schools in New Orleans and quickly issued charters.
With charter school enrollment nationwide up 14 percent to nearly 3 million last year, Louisiana was still among the states adding the most students.
The state’s Recovery School District has moved on to Baton Rouge, but like any other city where a hurricane didn’t scatter all the teachers and students, charters need to pound the pavement to fill classrooms.
Three weeks before school started, Al Barone, known as “Big Al,” weaved his way through an affordable housing complex, aiming to fill the last slots at University Prep Elementary, a.k.a. “UP.”
“Kindergartners and first graders! UP Elementary,” he says.
UP opened last year with a state charter and just kindergarten. This year it’s added first grade. Eventually, it’ll be a k-through-5 school.
Behind one door Big Al found Nicole Chester, whose grandson has already been enrolled at the nearby public school in the parish district.
“Are they gonna be reading by the middle of kindergarten? That’s what these did last year…” Barone says. He pulls out his favorite recruiting tool: a book full of little kid writings by last year’s kindergarteners.
Chester was interested, but she had questions about transportation and uniforms. “And what’s the colors of the school?” she asked.
Barone tells her: “Light blue shirt, dark blue pants, I believe.”
He didn’t get a yes, but Barone says he’ll come by again to try to seal the deal.
The State of Louisiana issued a charter for another school in Baton Rouge, Dalton Elementary, in 2009. Lynette Allen walked in out of pure curiosity.
Allen raised her six kids around the community, though she bused them across town for school, and that’s where she’d been a volunteer. She was attracted to Dalton because she says: “I got this longing for my own community.”
Allen got a job as Dalton’s community liaison. She’s there at 6 a.m. to open it up each morning. Her phone is always on so parents can call.
But she has been one of few constants. The school’s current operator, recruited from Los Angeles, is the third in six years. Allen’s worked with four or five principals in that time. Teachers have come and gone.
She says: “when you have something that’s not stable, it’s hard to get buy-in.”
And it makes Baton Rouge state Rep. Ted James very skeptical of charter operators.
“They’re not jumping here because they care so much about this community,” James says. “If Mississippi passed the laws that we have to make it so easy for charter schools to open, they’ll be running to Mississippi. If it happened in Texas, they’ll be running to Texas.”
With turnover and rapid expansion, a third of the charters in Louisiana, and half the charters in Baton Rouge alone have been open for just three years or less. And that means there’s not much data on whether students are performing any better academically.
“The push cards, the radio ads, they all sound and look great, but they don’t have the same level of accountability as our local district,” James says.
Along with solid academics, Lynette Allen says it’s relationships that make or break a school. She says without a good report, if a student is acting out, a teachers won’t get the parental support they need to handle it.
“But if you’ve established a relationship with that parent and little Johnny is going crazy, mom is comin’. And little Johnny won’t go crazy anymore,” she says.
The proof those essential relationships are taking hold will be whether students enroll and if they stay.
UP hasn’t released its figures yet, but Dalton says 96 percent of its 400-plus students from last year are returning, and enrollment overall is up to 500.
This report was supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Tomorrow, we look at some of the challenges of charter schools in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.