Ep. 61: Cool Schools with Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School

August 14, 2018

In today’s EdChoice Chat, Director of National Research Mike McShane talks with Thomas Moran, Jr., the president and CEO of a growing Catholic school in inner-city New Orleans. They talk about how the school started and is growing, how they manage to keep tuition free and what they’re doing to close achievement gaps.

Mike McShane: Welcome back to the Cool Schools podcast. This week, or this two weeks, or this however frequently you listen to our podcast, we are going to be talking about the Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School in the Jesuit tradition in the central business district of New Orleans, Louisiana. Now I know that was a mouthful, and we’re going to spend some time unpacking what each of those bits of the name of the school mean, the connections that this school has both to the Nativity Mission Schools, as well as the great tradition of Jesuit education.

I’ll be talking with Thomas Moran, Jr., who is the president and CEO of the school. He took a little bit of a nontraditional path into education and is shaking things up and really hoping to make a difference down in New Orleans.

Right now it’s a K–7 school that is looking to expand. It is an interesting model, because it actually existed in New Orleans pre-Katrina. So this school has seen the shifts, the incredible changes that that city has seen, was there before them and has been there since after them. So really Thomas, who I speak with, has a really unique perspective on that whole change that took place during that time period and some really great reflections on being an inner-city Catholic school educator in the year 2018.

Without further ado here is my conversation with Thomas Moran, President and CEO of the Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Thomas, when I peruse your school’s website, I see at the top the name The Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School in the Jesuit Tradition. Maybe the best place for us to start is to unpack that. So what is a Nativity Mission School? What does it mean to be a Nativity Mission School in the Jesuit tradition?

Thomas Moran: It’s certainly a lot of words on that matter, but just the real starting point of the school, a Jesuit priest founded Good Shepherd. He was working in at Immaculate Conception Parish in the central business district, and he said, “I’m watching poor families who work in the service industry go to work everyday. We need a school for their children, one that is safe, one that provides a community education, one that is free.”

So the Nativity model, in all the Nativity schools around the country, a lot of Jesuit schools were Nativity model is from 7:15 in the morning till 5:00, and it’s an extended school day, and it’s extended through the summer. So the Nativity model is really that extended piece that works to get kids caught up on skills that they’re lacking, and really to give them a safe environment.

A lot of our kids come from homes with no influence. A lot of their family members have been in prison. Many of them have witnessed violence in the neighborhoods they live in, so the school provides a safe environment. That’s the Nativity piece.

And the Jesuit tradition is, it was founded by Jesuit priests.

It is still, tuition is free. It’s paid for by benefactors, and we participate in school choice, Louisiana state scholarship program. Our students are at the poverty level or below so they’re all free and reduced lunch students. So the state voucher program pays for a portion of their tuition, then the rest is raised through donors and foundations. About 55% of our revenue comes from the state voucher program. It’s about $8,900 per student who participate in the Voucher program and pick up the gap between that and what it actually costs to educate student.

Interestingly enough though the Jesuit priest who founded the school was my high school principal. Extremely dynamic Jesuit priest. He had come to Jesuit High School when we started as students, so we knew him then, and then, and I started my career in the business world, in accounting. Got the education, was back in the business world, and a good friend of mine, a high school classmate of mine was on the Good Shepherd board, and he called and said, “We’ve going to need someone, a president of Good Shepherd School.” And I said, “Johnny I’m not interested at all.” And he said, “We’re looking to grow this one, looking for somebody that’s got the background that you have.” So, that started the dialogue and then fast forward 2016 in February I joined and it’s been a whirlwind since with growth enrollment and a big  building project in lieu of the school, and hopefully plans to expand to multiple schools at some point in time.

Mike McShane: So, what grades do you serve and how many children do you serve?

Thomas Moran: We are kindergarten through seventh grade. New Orleans is a little unique in that the elementary schools in the archdiocese end at seventh grade, and the 8th graders go to high school. So we’re kindergarten through seventh. And then next year we’ll be adding a Pre-K four program. We’ll be moving our new facility. And the facility we’re building is about forty thousand square feet as opposed to fifteen thousand square feet, so.

Yes it is. And it’s scheduled to be done August 1st. It’s been an intense construction process. We bought a property in May of 2016, I believe it was, and then started the fundraising piece and the New Market Tax Credit piece, and eventually tore down last year in May, was demolition, and pilons were driven in October. And we’ll be finished August 1 of this year. So it’s been about a 10-month building process.

It will allow us to add the Pre-K floor and two sections in every grade level instead of one. Enrollment wise, we were hovering at about a hundred for about a two-year period. Two years ago we were at 105. This year we’re at 158, 157 or 158, as of today. And then next year we will approach 275 on enrollment, so it’s been a substantial growth in enrollment in a short period of time.

Mike McShane: Well that’s a big building. So one question I have for you is in lots of cities around the country that are thinking about opening new Catholic schools in particular, there has been some tension as the declining enrollment that we’ve seen in traditional Catholic schools, with some folks within the community saying, “We need to double down and invest in our existing Catholic schools. We don’t want to necessarily start a new one.” Do you know how that conversation played out in New Orleans?

Thomas Moran: New Orleans is a little bit different. The arch diocese of New Orleans has been a pretty robust archdiocese for a number of years with successful schools and the demographics of the New Orleans area, I don’t know, probably thirty plus years ago started to shift and people moved to the suburbs and some of the suburban schools really took off on their own and some of the inner city schools started to struggle, just as people moved and the only remaining people who were left in a lot of cases were some who were not as wealthy. So those parishes lost some of their substantial funders and tuition-paying families. And back in the day the religious used to staff most of those schools, so a priest or a nun would teach and either didn’t get a salary or got a lesser salary than a layperson. So it was, they were cheaper schools to run.

That’s no longer the case. A lot of inner city schools are struggling and some ways dying on the vine when it comes to finances and you’re dealing a lot of times with a population of students who have additional needs that need to be met, academic needs, social needs, family needs and it’s, inner city schools are expensive to run. Our school in particular, we employ a social worker; we have two interventionists who specialize in math and ELA to handle our students who have, quite simply, have achievement gaps. They didn’t have the schooling growing up. Some had come from failing public schools. So you’ve got academic challenges that are costly to try to remediate, and it’s a challenging situation for inner city schools.

We’re a little unique in that we are a member of the archdiocese by agreement. A board runs and owns our school. We teach the living, we teach the Catholic faith, we do mass. But we are owned by our board which is a little unique. Other schools in the archdiocese are owned by the archdiocese.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: We’ve got a little more flexibility in that regard. And mobility. And we became participants in the school choice program when it started in 2007 or 2008, with 100% of our students being voucher students. So in that way we’re a lot like a charter school. We serve the same population that the charters serve. So I jokingly refer to oh, sometimes it’s kick with Jesus. People say what’s your school like? We’re like the charter, a Catholic version of it. The clientele we serve are the same ones that charters are serving. We’re reimbursed at a percentage of what the charters are reimbursed at because it’s a school choice program.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: And then we fundraise the rest.

Mike McShane: So now where do you get your teachers? I imagine it might be a tough sell with the extended day and the extended year. How do you swing that?

Thomas Moran: It is a challenge. We’ve managed to really be able to recruit, attract some quality folks. You get, sometimes it’s the young idealistic Teach for America, Jesuit Volunteer Corps types that like this piece. In other cases, some folks who are close to or retired from the public school system that have connections to the Catholic faith, often love this kind of mission. So those are two pools of potential places to go recruit.

And it’s a compelling mission, so it does attract people. And what we try to do on the last hour of our day is an enrichment period we call it. Some of our teachers do not work that piece. So it’s not a, you have to work that. So the ones who want to are paid a little more, as a stipend. In other instances we will form out that last hour to someone who just comes in for the last hour of the day. So, it makes it more manageable at that point.

And the summer piece, the school year ends, we take a week and shut down, they come back for six more weeks. It’s a little bit less in the summer, a 9-3, is the time of the schedule during the summer, so it’s more of a six hour hit in the summer. And not everybody works the summer. It’s less of a need that. The summer, first half of the day in the summer is an academic focus and the second half tends to be more of athletics and field trips and art and coding and so forth. So it’s a, the summer’s a little bit different pace for a teacher. And not everybody works the summer. So that makes it a little more manageable.

Mike McShane: Sure and I’d imagine too in a city like New Orleans there’s a lot of competition for great teacher talent. And I’m kind of curious, is it, New Orleans is clearly a destination where lots of young, idealistic people who want to work in education go down, so I could imagine that being a boon to your school, that you have a big talent pool to draw from. But you also have a lot of competition from charter schools and others. So how do you navigate that landscape where you’ve got all these people but you’ve got a lot of competition for them?

Thomas Moran: There are a lot of schools. Charters, public, some privates that are all competing for the same pool, and the pool is probably not as deep as you would imagine. Most people that are looking, look at the salary side will look at the charter or public first because they generally pay more than a Catholic or a private school. So we’ve tried to the best we can to come close to meeting the charter level of pay just because you’ve got that same kind of kid you’re serving in the same environment with extended days and summer programs and so forth.

So we’re really in more competition for teachers with charter schools than we are with our fellow Catholic schools, at our inner city Catholic schools. We’ve kind of treated ourselves and lived in both of those worlds, a Catholic world and look, let’s face it, we compete with the charters for our students. That’s where our students come from, and we don’t control our admissions process.

We participate in what is called the One App process, which is the same process charters use. Say you’ve got X number of seats, people choose you, if you’ve got an opening and they choose you and the program runs through and says that’s where your slotted, that’s who you get. It could be a fourth grader who reads at a first grade level, and that’s your student, and you’ve got to work with them, and oh by the way he’ll be tested on the high stakes state test as a fourth grader.

So that’s the admissions world we live in is open enrollment, and anyone who says they want us and we’ve got a slot, we take them. We literally work with the same mindset as a public school is, we don’t turn anybody away that chooses to come to us.

Mike McShane: And so now is that out of necessity? In order to get students? Was that a conscious decision on your part to participate in the One App system?

Thomas Moran: Well, when we chose to participate in the voucher system, that was the conscious choice. Before that the first, from ’01 to ’07, ’08, whenever the voucher program started, Good Shepherd was just a tuition-free school with its own admissions process. The first year it started in ’01, there was just kindergarten, a class of kindergartners and a class of first graders. And one grade level was added each year. So it was a slow and deliberate growth initially.

And then, Hurricane Katrina hit, and it was decimation at that point with the enrollment, and the conscious choice was to go to the school voucher route. It’s a known source of funding. It is, like I said, 55% of our revenue comes from that, so, for this year, you know, it’s probably $1.2 million comes from the state. So without that you’d have to go raise everything, which, is a difficult proposition.

So the voucher program ends up being your largest contribution to what it costs to educate a student. And then we go fundraise the rest from foundations and individual donors. The goal is to minimize the cost per child so you don’t have as much to raise, naturally. But it is, for the most recent historical past we have been about a 55-45% split on. Voucher money is 55%, and fundraising is 45%. So it was a conscious choice because it was a large block of revenue that comes in every year.

Mike McShane: And you mentioned Hurricane Katrina. What impact did Katrina have on your school. I imagine it impacted the students and perhaps the building itself and the teachers. We think of now so much of education in New Orleans post Katrina, but your school existed before and after. So how was it affected?

Thomas Moran: The physical building itself had very little impact. The central business district and that area was not like some of the outlying neighborhoods in terms of flooding and some minimal damage. But the real issue was most of the families live in neighborhoods that were decimated.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: Kids were all over the country so, they tried to find as many as they could, and, you know, they scrambled back and got the ones they could. And said we’re going to educate you and the board at that point in time made a conscious decision to say, look, whatever it takes, we’ll spend whatever we have and if this is the last thing we do is educate these kids that come back and we exhaust every dollar, well that will be the way our mission ended. There was some strong, bulldog approach by the board and going out and getting more donors and finding kids and then ultimately deciding to join the school voucher program. The school started to flourish again. And with each passing year flourished even more from an enrollment side, and a creative side. And Hurricane Katrina brought the charter movement to New Orleans and in a lot of ways was a game changer for the public school environment which was struggling in New Orleans for a long time. And it gave the education folks a clean slate, and ironically what Father Thompson started in our ward, we could argue he was a leading proponent of charter schools before charters were down here.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: He basically did a charter school. He started his own school, funded his own school, and took the kids nobody else necessarily wanted or kids who were impoverished. So he had some real vision as to what could be done in this city. And he did it on the backs of people he knew that were wealthy and committed to a Jesuit mission, which was to go take care of those who were underserved. And he pushed that and was dynamic enough to make it a reality.

So, I could argue he’s the father of charter schools. He’s never been labeled as such or maybe thought of as such, but the whole charter movement does almost what he did several years before that, and we continue to live in that charter world, in essence. We’re not a pure charter, but we’re serving the same kids and live in the same world

Mike McShane: So how do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Thomas Moran: The state certainly measures your success during testing, which is, uh, that’s not necessarily the way that you purely measure success. It is the growth in a child, and every part of that growth. It’s a faith growth, a feeling success growth, it’s confidence, and it’s learning and improving your skill set. And preparing you to become something that you were created to be. So, it is, we really work on helping kids improve. And our kids hold their own on the state testing.

We’re in the top five schools who are consistently—of the seventy-nine voucher schools we generally rank in four or five slot. Plus or minus a couple each year. And we do that by taking whoever comes, and we also take transfer students at all grade levels. We’ll take a transfer in sixth grade. And that’s tough to make up skills gaps that late in the game. It normally is a good two or three year period to make up a year’s worth of deficit. You almost need three years of intense remediation to get that student caught back up.

And we follow our kids all the way through high school and college. Our real measurement of success is how do we help the students that come to us break the cycle of poverty that they’re in? They were born into a poor situation from no choice of their own, and a lot of their parents are very hardworking people who are trying to break the cycle themselves. So we work as much as we can with parents and a new building that offers an opportunity to really become a community center. I hope to implement parent education classes, parent job training classes, community education classes at our building. We’ve got our huge cafeteria area that seats as many as two hundred people.

We’re looking to become a catalyst in what is a poor neighborhood, one that is still showing the effects of Hurricane Katrina where we’re moving. It’s the 7th ward and the neighborhood we’re moving into was a very predominant middle class African American neighborhood. Fifty, sixty years ago with very hard working families, a lot of artisans and craftsmen and laborers and workers and a lot of the leading political families in New Orleans area grew up in the AP Turner neighborhood and went on to law school and became attorneys and doctors and so forth.

It’s a neighborhood that is on the cusp of being revitalized and our project, our economic development project is essentially an eleven and a half million dollar project with, by the time you buy the land, and pay all the fees with all the and contractors and you build out, and it’s one that will allow us to almost double in size. And that means twenty to twenty-five new jobs, quality jobs in an area that many would say has been depressed since Hurricane Katrina. So that allowed us to get New Market Tax Credits because we’re helping a neighborhood that needed it with some development and job creation.

So that’s been a big part of, you asked how we exist earlier, I mean we will come out of this project with no debt. We sold our existing facility for about $3 million dollars. We raised, currently have raised over $4 million dollars. We’ve got about 2.4, $2.5 million on a New Market Tax Credit benefit. And the real goal is to raise $6 million, we’ve got a couple of big asks still out there and if we raise that we won’t have to touch our reserves. If not we’ll tap into our reserves which are $7 million dollars that, we’ve been good stewards of our resources over the years, knowing that if the state ever does anything with the voucher program we need to have reserves ready to continue to run our school while we find other sources of funding. We’ve been good stewards of our resources and it’s allowed us to smartly and successfully grow to where we’ll be at 275 kids.

The real goal to make the model school that we have truly successful is to reach that network level, which is a three school level. That allows you to apply for larger national grants. Grants that work on student achievement, making up the absence students have in the core subjects, STEM education, technology grants and so forth. So while we do noble work now, at a national level they look at it and say, “You’re just one school, we’d like you to make more impact. And when you do, we’ll be there with you.”

So, the strategic piece as a board and school leadership is how to do we over the next five to ten years smartly growing to additional schools that will allow us to get some game changing funding. And right now we’ve pretty much tapped our local market for funding. The local multi-millionaires and billionaires and foundations, but that’s a limited resource and everybody lines up at those same doors, so, our goal really is to expand to a national level and that’s how it was introduced to you is through folks at the Drexel Fund.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: Who love what we’re doing and are big proponents of growth and seats in school choice states. And Louisiana being one of those, and we are one of the few schools that they’ve been looking at to potentially fund. They’ve been impressed with our growth, our growth plan, and our academic success. So that’s a new national partnership. And it truly is a partnership where they want you to grow smartly. They’re not looking for you to grow too fast to where you implode and you fold. It’s a smart growth where you’re able to fund that growth and not tap into reserves and go bone dry on that. It’s how do you get ahead of the curve and find the donors.

The national piece is key, and for a little school along in the central business district that had a hundred kids and is running out of a shoebox when it first started basically, at thirty kids, and open the doors and start teaching them, and it’s not as complex. But as you grow it becomes more complex in collecting data and reporting those results, foundations and national players want to see data and want to see results and want to see that you’ve charted progress and that you’re financially viable and that you use your resources properly.

So a lot of moving parts for a little bitty school and is really made a difference in where kids are going when they leave us. The very first kids that started with us in ’01 as kindergartners and first graders actually started graduating college last year.

Mike McShane: Oh wow.

Thomas Moran: Yeah, so there were twelve students in that class. Six of them plan on graduating four years from college, which kids from the wealthiest boarding schools don’t graduate in four years.

Mike McShane: Yeah.

Thomas Moran: And then the other six in that class are in some form or fashion of finishing up degrees. Ironically one girl from that first graduating Good Shepherd class is coming to teach science for us next year as a teacher. You ask where we get teachers, well we’re getting one of our own now.

Mike McShane: Oh, that’s great.

Thomas Moran: She’s a biology and chemistry double major at Dillard University. She taught this past year at one of the local charter schools and, I’d say we stole her but we did a, posted on social media account saying we had openings. I knew she would respond to that when I did that, so, while I didn’t technically steal her, it was a pretty direct post I put out there knowing that she would see it.

So, she’ll, she actually signed her paperwork and contract with us two or three days ago. So, that’s an exciting story to tell, where she’ll be able to come back and share with the students she teaches on how the school changed her life. Very successful girl. Did extremely well in one of the all girls local Catholic schools, Mt. Carmel Academy, and very involved and succeeded at Dillard. And is a proud, proud graduate of Good Shepherd and everywhere she’s been she’s represented those schools well and herself well. So it’s an exciting time in that regard.

Mike McShane: Yeah. That’s great. So I want to close with a question maybe, you spoke a lot about the future of the school. Maybe looking backwards a bit, I know there are some people who listen to this podcast who are school leaders, or there are some who are teachers, who want to be school leaders, and I was wondering if you could think back, to when you got the phone call and you decided to do this, imagine now, we are then, what piece of advice would you give yourself, knowing what you know now back at that time period? So it could be something that you would have done differently, it could have been something that you, just a lesson that you learned that you wish you’d known at the beginning. What is that advice you’d give yourself?

Thomas Moran: I tend to enjoy each day as it is and for what it is. And just as a personality and leadership style, don’t often look back with too much regret on anything or questioning what was there. We always move to do the best we can do each day, knowing that the world we exist in is chaotic. And I think that might be the one thing that you don’t know until you get into it. The whole charter, inner city schools, big voucher program, it is, by nature, a chaotic environment.

It is moving parts with the state, the city, the poorest of poor people. Systems that are sometimes complex for them to navigate when it comes to the enrollment process, and then the funding piece is always a challenge in Baton Rouge. You’re dealing with tough situations. The chaotic world that you live in. We always say the more chaos there is, the more opportunity we have.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: Because we’re prepared for it. And so we don’t mind jumping into the chaotic situations and a situation most people, look most people run from inner city education and abandon folks who are poor. As a society we don’t always have that focus that we need. Because it’s not easy. So we’ve excelled because we have not been afraid of it, and we know the impact that is there. So I guess whatever your question was at the beginning that I’ve rambled on through, I guess it’s the knowing that having lived the chaotic piece, you kind of knew that was there. Once you’re in it you really see how chaotic it can become.

And like I said that has been our advantage and our opportunity is we are, from a personnel side, an experience side, real experience board leadership that we have, and real attuned to the Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C. lobbyist groups that deal with school choice. We’re heavily involved in that. So nothing that occurs scares us. Well maybe that chaos and uncertainty, we know about it and we know we’re prepared for it and we’ve assembled quality people on the school leadership side, on a support staff side, on a fundraising side, curriculum and technology side, we’ve brought some of the best and the brightest on board to handle the now but also with the very clear and keen eye on what’s next. We’re not here to be just a school of 350 kids in this one site. Where can we go to change a neighborhood just like the one we’re moving into?

When Father Thompson started this mission, there’s an article in one of the local weekly newspapers, The Gambit, and he said I want eight of these schools in the eight most impoverished neighborhoods. So as you look around the different pockets of poverty in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, there are very easily six areas of heavy poverty where schools have pretty much left or fallen to either disrepair or no results, or limited results that we could move into. It’s how do you find the building, at hopefully at cheap or no cost, an existing building, and you hope that the state funding stays secure and would even increase in an ideal world. And can you raise the rest of it, and the idea to raise the rest of it is, to reach a network level where you get more bang on a national level.

In essence a school the size that we’re going to run is probably going to be a budget in a $3.5 million dollar range. So, imagine three schools, each with a $3.5 million dollar budget.

Mike McShane: It starts to add up.

Thomas Moran: You’ve got $10.5 million you need every year and oh by the way you’re going to get 55% from the government so you’ve got five or six million maybe? You’ve gotta go raise four plus million dollars every year. If you start to look at it’s scary, but then you say alright, you go get a national technology grant, you get a Believe and Succeed grant, each of those grants is $1.5 million. That’s how you make it happen. You don’t do it by, you know, you can’t keep having fundraising events. We have an excellent golf tournament and Dancing with the Stars Event, and we bring in net of about $300,000 or more between three and four hundred thousand dollars in events. You’re not able to do an event in each one of those schools, it’s a city wide event.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Thomas Moran: And the event is stuck at that level of you know, while they’re very good for one school when you get three and four schools, you’ve got to find other resources to tap, and there are some very wealthy and generous family foundations and corporate foundations on a national level that love to fund schools like ours.

So it’s a matter of getting it in front of those folks, telling the story and showing that. Wealthy people want to see results, they don’t want to hear talk; they want to see data. They want to see real results on an academic side, a staffing side and a finance side, so we’ve got external audited financial statements for years we’ve had. To tell the world, we’re just as concerned about minding our resources as you are. When you give us the money, and we’re ahead of the academic curve, and track that data just because it’s a tool for us to help our students.

So, we’ve put all those mechanisms in place, and essentially we’ve built what is basically a back office with our singles pool, and we could easily build on top of that knowing that the technology person, a curriculum person, a fundraising person, a social worker person and so forth, a CEO exists on a network level and can run the three, four, five, six school umbrella of schools and network of schools that it would have. We’ve started too, and really built a robust team of people who are prepared. It’s now how do you find the resources to successfully build with? You never want to damage what is already there, and then, you know, people have worked so hard to establish it.

It’s a smart and deliberate growth and that’s where it is. CEO leadership level that I’m at and board level, we’ve got to be extremely smart and diligent in how we manage that growth and grow at a proper pace, otherwise you run the risk of losing what you’ve built. So we’re good stewards of our resources and our vision. And that’s been the nicest part about what we’ve done.

Mike McShane: I tell you, I think that’s about as good of a place to stop as any. I know you’re a very busy man so thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Thomas Moran: Thank you, appreciate it, let me know if you’re having any other podcasts, give me a call I’ll be available.

Mike McShane: Well I hope you all enjoyed that conversation. Part of my mind just goes to, summertime in New Orleans, and teaching and going on field trips. I think the teachers and the educators that are affiliated with schools that are doing that deserve our praise and long holidays and high pay, but perhaps I’m just doing some editorializing. Well I really enjoyed that conversation, I think as I said at the beginning, having that unique pre/post Katrina perspective, talking about the teacher labor market that exists down in New Orleans and how schools are having to adapt, talking about One App and the private school choice programs that exist in the state, so many different forces are converging in the city of New Orleans, so having that on-the-ground perspective I found super valuable.

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