Navigating The New Orleans School Enrollment Process
Applications to most New Orleans public schools are due this Friday. New Orleans is known as a "choice" landscape. Families apply to schools across the city, instead of automatically sending their children to the neighborhood school. But how much actual choice is there?
It's a Saturday morning and school marching bands play for a crowd. But they're not in a Mardi Gras parade. They're in the Superdome, at a schools expo. There's a bouncy house and a climbing wall. Things to keep kids occupied while their families learn about schools.
Tye Davis has one priority: finding a school closer to home. She says her nine-year-old daughter spends over an hour each way on the school bus. When she gets home at night, “she don't have time for anything, really. She does homework, she eats and go to bed.”
Parent Javanti Coleman has a clear vision, too: a school with a bullying prevention program.
“Because that's one of the issues that I face today is that my kid get bullied a lot,” Coleman says. “So I'm looking to put her in a better school that have a hold, control on bullying and things of that nature. The school that she goes to now doesn't meet my needs at all.”
Shawn James isn't quite as specific. His kids' schools are fine, he says. “But if you can get them a better education, why deny them?”
He's talking to school leaders to get a feel for their style.
The school district doesn't provide this. It's an independent organization — the Urban League — that started hosting the Schools Expo nine years ago, when New Orleans completely restructured its enrollment system. At first, families applied directly to individual schools, a process many found burdensome. Multiple deadlines. Multiple criteria. Running around the city to visit schools.
In 2012 the city created OneApp. Now families rank their top eight choices on one application, and a computer algorithm matches students with schools. The goal is to create a simpler enrollment process. But figuring out which schools to list requires research. Hence the expo. Where schools try to attract families.
“They're in a marketing environment,” says Audrey Stewart. She's a public school parent and co-author of the Parents' Guide, an independent book with details about every public school. “And in that environment, there's a lot of incentive for schools to put forward their best, sort of shiniest image of themselves.”
She's not surprised by schools at the expo offering on-the-spot instrument lessons, showing off the school step team, or handing out sprigs of rosemary from the school garden. It's the same reason schools advertise on bus stops and billboards. All this is information, but it's also hype.
“It also leaves parents having a hard time understanding day to day what's going on in a school,” Stewart says.
And she says many schools might not be that dramatically different. The New Orleans charter landscape started out with some diversity among schools, but now most go for strict discipline, long school days, and a heavy focus on tests.
“So that even if you applied to five or six schools,” Stewart says, “they might have different names and even be in different charter networks but your child would be having a very similar experience at any of those schools.”
She says more schools tend toward a model that they think will ensure them a decent rating, rather than trying something different.
The Parents' Guide includes numbers like class size, suspension rates, and student stability — that is, how many students return to the school for another year. And practical things parents need to know, like whether there's an after-school program or transportation.
“I think one of the things that surprised me was how many families wanted to know the school uniform colors,” says Rebeccah Fleming, a school choice advisor. She divides her time among the city's three Family Resource Centers, sites where families can call or drop in for enrollment support. Hidden costs – like paying for a new uniform – matter.
“A lot of our families have limited resources,” Fleming says. “They're trying to work with what they already have.”
There's also the likelihood of getting in. Families can now access demand data: how many open seats a school has and how many students listed it on OneApp. Last year 251 incoming freshman listed the highly regarded McMain Secondary School as their top choice. It only had 27 spots for new students. Important to know, so families understand the odds.
A few OneApp schools have admission criteria. And not every school is even part of OneApp. Nine of the best public schools opted out. They have their own separate application.
Back at the Expo, Lashonda Jones wants to send her daughter to a top performing high school. But she wasn't really finding many there.
“They was all maybe like C or D and some was F,” Jones says. “And a lot of them saying oh well we were C+ almost a B and I don't think almost, it doesn't count to me. Either you there or you not.”
Her go-to source of information? Word of mouth. Based on what she's heard, she wants her daughter to go to Ben Franklin. But that's a school with academic requirements and its own application. Is she excited about her backup options?
“No,” Jones says. “Not at all.”
Families get their assignments in April. If they're not happy, they can apply for a new seat during late enrollment. But the likelihood of getting a desirable spot drops even lower.
Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries and Entergy Corporation.