Holiday mode had overtaken most of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology last week in the Lower Ninth Ward: Prekindergartners practiced singing along to “Jingle Bell Rock” for an upcoming Christmas show, while 3rd and 4th grade teachers showed off a hallway with an elaborate display of seasonal scenes.
But Principal Doris R. Hicks and members of the board that oversees the pre-K through 8th grade campus were focused on February 2008—the fast-approaching deadline to submit a proposal to the Louisiana Department of Education to add a 9th grade to King next year. As an already-approved charter school, King must file an amendment to its charter agreement to add a grade, a proposal that will have to be approved by the state board of education.
Kenneth Campbell, the director of Louisiana’s charter school office, had come to King to discuss its high school plan. Ms. Hicks explained to him that as the neighborhood around the campus slowly revived and people returned to rebuild their homes, demand for a high school was growing. Lawless Senior High, not far from King, is not likely to reopen.
“We’ve heard the desire from parents and the community to extend our program into high school,” the principal said. “There is no comprehensive high school in the Lower Ninth Ward anymore, and people want one.”
Mr. Campbell, who oversees Louisiana’s charter schools for the state department of education, was encouraging.
“We already know what you guys are doing here and that you have the capacity to do high school if you want,” he said. “I want to know if you are grooming the kids you have here already for your high school program, because that is very compelling.”
King, which came home to its original campus this past August after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters had left it in ruins, was the first public school to reopen in the Lower Ninth Ward. Though still surrounded by abandoned houses and weed-choked lots where homes once stood, the school has been a catalyst for rebuilding one of New Orleans’ most storm-ravaged communities.
Before the storm, King was part of the Orleans Parish public school system, but chose to reopen as a charter afterward to ensure its return to the Lower Ninth Ward campus. By doing so, the school also avoided being swept into the Recovery School District, the state-run system that has taken over most of the city’s public schools.
Finding the Funding
King is one of the best-known charter schools in New Orleans, both locally and nationally. Its hard-fought battle to come home to the Lower Ninth Ward, and its record of turning out solid academic performances in one of city’s most disadvantaged communities, have drawn accolades and attention from politicians and school practitioners.
But in a city that will be home to roughly 45 charter schools next fall, Ms. Hicks and Hilda Young, the president of the governing board that oversees King, said they want to start recruiting students from beyond King’s existing class of two-dozen 8th graders for a new high school program. They had many questions for Mr. Campbell about what resources would be available to pay for an additional grade level.
They could, Ms. Hicks said, probably squeeze one 9th grade class onto the King campus, but more than that would require more space. They’ve been eyeing a community center right across the street that has hardly been touched since the storm.
“It’s a fierce competition for students in this city now,” Ms. Young said. “We need to be in a position where we can attract students from all over the city. We know that we want to offer a college-prep curriculum that is very much science and math focused.”
Mr. Campbell was frank about their prospects for getting startup funding that new charters receive when they first open: “You won’t be eligible, because you aren’t opening as a new charter.” But, he said, King might be able to tap resources from philanthropic organizations that invest in charter schools.
Just that morning, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Doris and Donald Fisher Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had announced a $17.5 million investment in nonprofit groups that are working on school recovery and reform in New Orleans. One of the nonprofit groups, New Schools for New Orleans, will receive $10 million to use over three years, much of it for helping to create and support new charter schools.
King’s principal and board president were skeptical that their school would benefit from any of that money.
“How do I get excited about that money that came in today?” Ms. Hicks said. “We aren’t a school created by anyone else. We did this charter ourselves. I’m not sure where King fits into that.”
Mr. Campbell urged them to be optimistic. “I would work on having the highest-quality charter school that you can,” he said. “The [foundations] will see what you do and that you are having success and will want to invest in you.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.