Orleans Parish School Board approves city's first blended-learning charter

The Orleans Parish School Board has approved the city's first "blended learning" charter school despite staff and board members' concerns about its for-profit management. The educational model combines in-person and online coursework. TMCF@SUNO is a joint venture of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Southern University at New Orleans, and will be run by Connections, an online education company owned by textbook giant Pearson.

TMCF@SUNO could open as early as next fall with 225 students in grades 6-8, expanding to a 625-student middle/high school by 2018. The application team includes State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, a SUNO administrator.

It would be the 15th charter overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, which controls about one quarter of the city's public schools. The state Recovery School District took over most of the city's schools after Hurricane Katrina. The School Board also runs five schools directly.

Vice President Leslie Ellison, Cynthia Cade and Nolan Marshall voted in the majority at the board's Tuesday-night meeting. Seth Bloom was absent; President Ira Thomas, SUNO's police chief, recused himself.

An increasing number of New Orleans schools use software to boost learning during computer labs -- drilling kids in math, for instance, and then pulling aside struggling students for help one-on-one or in small groups. However, TMCF@SUNO will be the city's first school where students spend only part of the day in the actual building.

High schoolers will come to the site for four hours a day, middle schoolers for six, supplemented by at-home online courses.

Kathleen Padian, Orleans Parish deputy superintendent for charter schools, thought the middle school might appeal to older students who have been held back.

"I would think this is a different kind of student. You have to be at least somewhat self-motivated," she said.

However, the innovation comes at a cost. Connections will charge $1800 per student to use its proprietary software. The company takes 10 percent on top of that for back-office services. Public school funding has averaged around $8,500 per student in New Orleans.

Connections has pledged to contribute money as necessary during the first years of operation to keep the school in the black but the local administrators would have to repay it over time.

District staff recommended denying the application due to concerns about its financial model and because the school did not initially present the required transportation plan. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers did recommend approval, calling Connections "a national leader in virtual and blended learning."

Several School Board members expressed concern over whether Thurgood Marshall and SUNO would be tied to Connections. Most of New Orleans charters' experiments with for-profit management companies have not gone well -- and sometimes at a high price: Lafayette Academy had to pay Mosaica Education $100,000 to end their contract early.

Only one New Orleans charter is currently run by a for-profit: the Crescent Leadership Academy alternative school.

The applicants assured the School Board that the local nonprofit could fire Connections if the partnership didn't work.

However, the sample contract Connections presented says TMCF@SUNO may terminate the contract without financial penalty only if the school hasn't met academic or enrollment goals after 4 years.

Educational outcomes data are limited for Connections' first Louisiana school, which will receive its first performance score and letter grade in October. About 1,200 students across the state attended the all-virtual Louisiana Connections Academy last year. Its older students' end-of-course exam results were uneven: above average in English, average in geometry and biology and below average in U.S. History and algebra.

The School Board also denied applications Tuesday from Smothers Academy, for an all-male pre-K-12 school; the Learning Lab, for grades 6-12; and Cypress Academy, for a school focused on students with reading disabilities. Those decisions were in line with the recommendations from both district staff and NACSA.

SUNO took over Sophie B. Wright in 2005 but no longer runs the Uptown school.



Source: NOLA.com