Chamber Executive Article Archive

Back to School

By Katherine House

Summer 2014

How One Chamber Changed a School System—and Students’ Lives.

In February, 24 students graduated from a charter high school in the New Orleans area. This feat may sound unremarkable, but to teachers, family members and especially the graduates, it’s extraordinary. “A year or two years prior, they thought they had no future,” says Tom Meyer, chairman of the Jefferson Chamber Foundation in Metairie, La.

The future is brighter for those graduates and their fellow students because they enrolled in Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy. JCFA is believed to be the first—and perhaps the only—charter school in the nation founded by a chamber of commerce. And it’s not your typical charter school: 57 percent of its students previously have dropped out of high school. The rest have skipped so many classes at other schools that they are “one step away” from dropping out, says Millie Harris, JCFA’s executive director.

Many students must shoulder adult responsibilities, making it difficult to attend traditional schools, according to Harris. Some are young parents; others are breadwinners or caretakers for siblings or parents. Students may have an imprisoned parent or one threatened with deportation.

At JCFA, the average student would be an 18-year-old sophomore at a traditional high school. Once they fall behind, it can seem overwhelming to catch up while juggling other responsibilities, says Harris. Students face other academic challenges. On average, they read at the 8th grade level and test at the 6th grade level in math.

Nontraditional Start for a Nontraditional School

Many chambers work closely with local schools to provide support and resources, but there’s a huge difference between supporting a school and starting one. What compelled the Jefferson Chamber to launch a school completely different from others in its area?

It began with a federal grant. In 2007, Metairie was one of six cities nationwide to receive a Multiple Education Pathway Blueprint grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Cities of certain sizes were eligible to receive funds if their high school dropout rate was 40 percent or higher. In Metairie, the Chamber Foundation sought and was awarded the grant money, totaling nearly $500,000. The grant was designed to allow cities to “blueprint” and implement a system to reconnect dropouts to a variety of education pathways. Of the six cities receiving grants, Metairie was the only one with a chamber or chamber foundation as the lead agency. In other cases, community colleges, workforce boards and an education foundation administered the grants.

At the time, Larry Dale, then executive director of the Jefferson Chamber Foundation, hired Harris as grant coordinator. As part of the process, the Foundation assembled a coalition of community leaders, reviewed data, organized focus groups, researched best practices for dropout prevention and recovery, and created alliances with organizations serving students. Harris also visited a charter high school in Lafayette, La., that boasted a strong track record of graduating “over-age and under-credited” youth. Along the way, it became clear to Dale, Harris and others that an alternative high school would be a valuable addition to their community. In July 2009, the Foundation submitted a letter of intent to the Jefferson Parish School Board to apply for a charter.

Two Important Connections

It was helpful that the Chamber’s Education Committee already had a strong working relationship with the school district, says Harris. And there was growing awareness in the business community of “a connection between a strong education system and increasing economic development,” she says. At the same time, the New Orleans area was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, and charter schools were gaining traction as a way to replace demolished schools, explains Meyer, an investment advisor with Benefit Planning Group.

Even so, school board members in Jefferson Parish were not open to charter schools, says Dale, in part because they feared losing funding from the state. (At the time, the parish had only one charter school, a middle school for students with discipline problems.) Some charter school critics fear they will serve an elite community, siphoning students from other schools.

Such arguments were not relevant in this case, chamber leaders insisted. The school they envisioned would serve students who had already left or likely would leave the school system. Despite heated debate and opposition from the local teachers’ union, the charter application was approved. JCFA opened in August 2010 with 89 students.

Why did chamber leaders and staff work so hard to pursue this alternative? “Education is economic development,” explains Dale. A region “can’t grow unless you have a decent workforce, and businesses don’t want to locate here unless you have a decent workforce.” At the same time, high school dropouts unable to find employment “may turn to other means to survive,” he says. Indeed, studies have shown that 75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates are high school dropouts, according to the National Dropout Prevention/Network. “Think how much more it costs to house someone in prison than to educate them,” says Dale.

Todd Murphy, current president of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, says, “I think any chamber that is going to be relevant has to be actively involved in public policy and advocacy.” As an outgrowth of that, the Jefferson Chamber—through its Foundation, Education and Government Committees and PAC—has worked to reform public education in Jefferson Parish. Their efforts, including founding JCFA and drafting people to run for the school board, “makes us relevant as a chamber and not just a networking group,” he says. The chamber also lobbies the state legislature on education issues.

A Look at the Academy

JCFA, which serves youth ages 15 to 21, was designed to meet the unique needs of its students. School meets year-round from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., with occasional holiday breaks. The shortened day makes it easier for students to hold jobs, says Harris. The school also offers an optional class period at the beginning and end of the day. By attending those periods, students “bank” school time just as employees earn comp time.

The school relies on a computer-based curriculum, allowing motivated students to catch up more quickly than they could at a traditional school. Harris says the curriculum is “very rigorous,” and knows this from experience: she enrolled herself in a chemistry class that was “no joke.” One teacher and at least one tutor are available in every classroom to offer one-on-one assistance. Students with access to computers may complete coursework, but not tests, outside of school.

The Academy does not own buildings or computers. The school’s initial location rents space on a community college campus. A second location, opened in 2013, leases space from the University of New Orleans. This strategy is cost-effective and provides “a clear pathway to post-secondary education,” says Harris.

One of JCFA’s advantages is its ability to confer a Jefferson Parish high school diploma, not a GED. A GED is not always viewed in the same light as a traditional diploma, says Dale, who is now executive director of the Louisiana Business Leadership Network and a member of the Jefferson Parish School Board. (He was recruited by the chamber’s PAC to run for the school board seat.). He says it can be difficult for teenagers to adjust to GED classes alongside much older adults.

The Chamber’s Ongoing Role

The chamber and its foundation are not involved in the daily operation of the school. Harris, administrators and teachers report to the school’s Board of Governance. Funding is derived from the same formula as that of other public schools. (JCFA receives additional funds from public and private grants and donations.)

Even so, the chamber’s influence and support are invaluable, say the school’s leaders and proponents. “The chamber and foundation are very important in helping the community understand why programs like ours are important,” says Harris. Chamber members, including those involved in Leadership Jefferson, visit the school and discuss their careers and what employers look for in employees. Chamber businesses have offered internships to students and hired graduates. “Our job now is to connect the business community to the school,” says Meyer.

“We also use the chamber as a voice for education standards,” says Harris. “Just hearing from us only goes so far.” The Jefferson Parish school district is the state’s largest. “When members of the legislature hear from our chamber, they listen,” she explains. The chamber provides connections and resources locally; it is currently working to make public bus fares more affordable for students. Additionally, chamber members helped JCFA find and foster relationships with its landlords.

The Academy and the Chamber Foundation are “intertwined” in other ways, explains Meyer. The Foundation Board approves membership on the school’s Board of Governance. It reviews the school’s budget and its leases, and brings grant opportunities to Harris. That’s not all. The Foundation provides scholarships to graduates planning to further their education.

Today, the Academy has “really become the talk of the town,” says Murphy. It seems that whenever he has a speaking engagement, someone asks how a family member or friend can enroll.

“I try to make every one of their graduations,” says Dale. JCFA students “had the perseverance to go back [to school] and there was a vehicle to enable them to go back. It’s inspiring to see that.” In a video prepared for the spring 2011 graduation, student Candice Alexander explained, “People look at this school like it’s just about a million people who dropped out, a million people who failed. It’s not about that. It’s about people who’re making it.”

And make it they do, thanks to the support of teachers, faculty, board members, the chamber Foundation and chamber members. “It’s very rare that students are dismissed from the program,” says Harris. “Everyone here fights for these kids. No one else has, and no one else will.”

Katherine House is a business writer and frequent contributor to Chamber Executive. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

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