On a sunny Saturday here three days before Mardi Gras, educator Kristin L. Moody and lawyer Robert J. Burvant could be found canvassing a stretch of Canal Street, recruiting students for their new charter school. Sporting burgundy T-shirts with the school’s name, the two made their sales pitch to clusters of family and friends gathered for a parade along the broad boulevard in Mid-City. “Do you know of any 8th graders looking for a good high school next year?”
Ms. Moody asked one group. Ms. Moody, who left a teaching job in Los Angeles to co-found the planned Sojourner Truth Academy, and Mr. Burvant, a New Orleans native who chairs the school’s board, got a few nibbles. But they clearly had a lot of work ahead to get the word out about their school and sign up families.
In the new educational landscape of New Orleans—where public school choice is a fundamental element—pounding the pavement to drum up students has become a familiar pursuit.
Proponents say a central idea of the education system that has emerged since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 is to provide a diverse array of high-quality school options, with families making informed decisions based on their children’s needs and interests.
But school choice can be messy business. Families don’t always choose based on what theorists would hope, and access to all schools isn’t always equal. Even staunch supporters of the New Orleans strategy acknowledge that creating a meaningful choice system here will likely be a long, difficult process.
It’s been a bumpy road so far. Observers say many parents have faced confusion in navigating post-hurricane New Orleans’ patchwork system of schools, and often lack information about their options. Some analysts worry that savvy parents are finding their way into certain schools—mainly charters—leaving the schools operated by the state-run Recovery School District as a last resort. Complaints have arisen that some charters may be pushing out problem students.
The fast-growing charter sector also has sparked pushback from local activists. The leaders of Sojourner Truth Academy, for instance, have drawn bitter criticism. One complaint is that it provides unwelcome competition for other public schools in the community.
Despite the many challenges for the choice-based system, various efforts are under way to help make it work well, from simplifying the application process for admission to equipping families with more information about schools.
“Parents have both the right and the responsibility to choose,” said Aesha Rasheed, the editor of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools, a free publication with information about all the city’s public schools. “In that framework, people must be empowered to understand what those choices are.”
Changing the Paradigm
The school system in New Orleans was redrawn after Katrina, and now has two primary governing bodies: the state Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish school board. At the same time, the city has seen a huge influx of independent charter schools, which account for roughly half the city’s 78 public schools.
Most schools have open enrollment, so any student may attend, space permitting. The exceptions are several Orleans Parish-run schools and about half of the dozen charters it oversees, Ms. Rasheed said. Some of those schools—which existed before the storm—use academic criteria to help determine admission.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the governance of the public schools in New Orleans has become fragmented. The state-run Recovery School District directly operates 33 schools and oversees 26 charter schools, while the city’s Orleans Parish school board directly runs only five schools and oversees 12 charters.
SOURCES: Recovery School District; Louisiana Department of Education
School choice may be unfamiliar to many low-income New Orleans families. Before Katrina, exercising choice mainly meant turning to private and parochial schools. The city’s nonpublic system still thrives, serving some 18,000 students, though not all live in New Orleans. That compares with more than 32,000 in the public schools.
“Choice has long been correlated with the capacity to buy your way out of the system,” said Matt Candler, the chief executive officer of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit group working with the city’s charter schools. “We’re trying to change the whole paradigm of what choice is.”
But some local activists complain that New Orleans residents have little say in the changes.
“The notion of choice is a euphemism,” said Beth Butler, a community organizer here with the national advocacy group ACORN. “We’re mandated to have charters. It’s another one of these grand experiments to prove … that you can force privatization on a public system and that it will work.”
Many families don’t necessarily perceive that they have choices. A survey of public school parents conducted last year by the Boston Consulting Group found that only about half felt they had “options to choose from when enrolling my child in school.”
Last month, local education leaders took what they described as a key step to make choice easier and more accessible, when they announced a simplified, uniform application process for most schools. The process replaces the approach used during the past two years, in which parents had to hunt down separate applications for charters and keep track of a multitude of different deadlines.
By contrast, the new, one-page applications are all due Feb. 27; parents may apply to as many schools as they wish. The charters overseen by Orleans Parish are not participating this year, but are expected to in 2009-10.
In early March, the RSD-run schools and the RSD charters will conduct lotteries to determine admission if they have more applicants than seats.
A citywide schools fair, where parents could meet with officials from a variety of schools, was scheduled for Feb. 23. In addition, an updated edition of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools, first released last year, was to be unveiled at the fair, with new information, such as state-test results.
Ms. Rasheed, the editor, also recently started the nonprofit Parent Organizing Network to help build families’ capacity to measure school quality, and to share that information publicly. Another nonprofit, Save Our Schools New Orleans, Louisiana, launched a Web site in January with details about individual schools, including program offerings, test data, maps, and student demographics.
‘The Default Setting’
Families so far appear to have found schools through various routes, such as word of mouth, recruitment by charters, or simply signing up with the RSD. Many seem inclined to attend a school close to home, given the city’s tradition of neighborhood schools.
Baytona M. Tucker sends her 7th grade son to Livingston High School, an RSD-run school that’s a few blocks from her home in New Orleans East. But she’s not happy with the school. “It’s lousy,” she said. “They’re barely learning anything. I’m going to try to get him into another school.”
Joseph J. Jacobs feels otherwise. “I live right down the street, about five blocks,” he said as he picked up his 2nd grade daughter from Lafayette Academy Charter School, in Uptown. “It’s very convenient. … The school seems to be great.”
Mickey Landry, the new principal at the pre-K-7 charter, said many families see it as the neighborhood school. “For a lot of people in New Orleans, that’s still the default setting,” he said. “People are very tied to their neighborhoods.”
Administrators say most schools tend to have a blend of students from nearby neighborhoods and elsewhere.
All of the RSD-run schools and RSD charters provide free transportation.
“We are moving kids on yellow buses all over this town,” said Mr. Candler of New Schools for New Orleans.
Some parents seem to tie their view of a school to its reputation before Katrina, regardless of changes since. And many aren’t clear about what a charter school is.
“Everybody’s charter now, post-Katrina,” said Donna Davis, who has grandchildren in New Orleans schools. “Everybody stuck the word ‘charter’ behind their name.”
Leaving aside the small number of selective-enrollment schools, some analysts say there may be inadvertent sorting of the city’s students among open-enrollment campuses based on parent knowledge and motivation.
“It really seems to be … that parents with a little more savviness, and a little more access to information, learn about [charter] schools,” said Michael Schwam-Baird, the research manager for the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. He cautioned, though, that this conclusion was anecdotal.
Mr. Schwam-Baird said recent focus groups conducted with principals, teachers, and students suggest a perceived “two-tier system” among the 59 schools overseen by the Recovery School District. “The tiers are, RSD charters are better,” he said, “and RSD-run schools are less desirable.”
Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District, said he’s working to increase the options for families, both with charters and the RSD-run schools. State data show that 94 percent of the students in the 26 RSD charter schools come from families poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized meals; 96 percent are African-American. In the RSD-run schools, state data show that 98 percent of students are black and 77 percent are eligible for subsidized meals.
“We want all of our schools to be schools of choice,” he said.
While the RSD-run schools share core curricular elements, he said, plans are under way to create specialized themes and magnet programs in RSD-run high schools. Recognizing families’ strong affinity for neighborhood schools, Mr. Vallas said his goal for all RSD campuses, charter and traditional, is to reserve some seats for students who live nearby, while also allowing citywide access. No such system is likely to be in place until the 2009-10 school year, RSD officials say.
Meanwhile, some parents and community advocates have raised concerns that charters may be pushing out unwanted students.
Robert C. Logan, the RSD’s director of charter schools, said the allegations include charges that schools are failing to provide adequate services for students with disabilities, or that they fail to adequately intervene to address behavioral or disciplinary problems, and instead pressure families to find other schools.
He said the district takes the issues seriously, and is investigating such cases.
“There are certain charters that I receive more complaints about than others,” he said.
“For some, I don’t hear any complaints.” For next academic year, the RSD charters will have about 2,500 vacant seats, Mr. Logan estimates, with 1,100 in the seven new charters.
Those include Sojourner Truth Academy, which is recruiting only a 9th grade class and will gradually add higher grades.
The RSD this month announced the school’s official location, on the third floor of Frederick Douglass High School, in the Bywater section of the Ninth Ward.
Ms. Moody and co-founder Channa M. Cooke have seen some harsh opposition from community activists to their college-preparatory school, which will have a focus on social justice.
“At times, it’s been couched in suggestions,” Ms. Cooke said.
“Like, ‘Go home,’ ” Ms. Moody added. One critic is Greta Gladney, who leads the Renaissance Project, a local community-development organization.
“It looks like just another wave of opportunism, and the opportunity came in New Orleans,” she said of the plans to open Sojourner Truth.
Ms. Gladney said she fears competition from the charter will impede efforts to revitalize existing neighborhood high schools. “They would be competing for students in the same area we work in,” she said. “They’re going to be competing for a teaching pool as well.”
But Ms. Moody said she doesn’t view her efforts that way.
“We’re not trying to steal their kids or steal their teachers,” she said. “We should all be working together to make each other strong.”
Mr. Candler said charter leaders must work hard to build trust in communities and seek local input in shaping schools.
The Rev. Barrington Dwayne Gidney, the associate pastor at Castle Rock Community Church, said that while he’s sympathetic to charters, the sector needs to understand where some of the local concern he’s heard comes from.
“You just see these new people constantly coming into your neighborhood,” he said, “coming in to help change your kids, and you get a little scared.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as No Easy Road to Choice