New Orleans Schools' Massive Experiment With Choice03:52
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Javanti Coleman hopes to find a new school for her daughter. "The school that she goes to now, it doesn't meet my needs at all," Coleman says.
Javanti Coleman hopes to find a new school for her daughter. "The school that she goes to now, it doesn't meet my needs at all," Coleman says.

New Orleans students will soon find out where they'll go to school this fall. Like other large cities in the United States, New Orleans uses a choice system when deciding where children receive an education. There are no school districts, no designated neighborhoods. Rather, families apply to schools across the city. So, how do families navigate this process? And what do they look for? From the Here & Now Contributors Network, WWNO's Mallory Falk reports.


On a Saturday morning in New Orleans, school marching bands, administrators and families gather in the Superdome, where 120 representatives for schools stand at long tables.

It's a big day for first impressions and each school is putting their best faces forward trying to recruit families. They give on-the-spot instrument lessons or show off the school step team.

Families are here to shop around. Like other large cities in the United States, New Orleans uses a choice system when deciding where children receive an education.

There are no school districts, no designated neighborhoods. Rather, families apply to schools across the city. But what are they looking for?

In New Orleans, advertisements for charter schools – and the annual Schools Expo – appear on billboards and bus stops. (Mallory Falk)
In New Orleans, advertisements for charter schools – and the annual Schools Expo – appear on billboards and bus stops. (Mallory Falk)

"I'm changing schools for two of my kids," said Tye Davis. "So I came out here just to see the location, the academic grades that the school gets and the curriculum that they offer."

Davis has one priority: finding a school closer to home. She says her 9-year-old daughter spends over an hour each way on the school bus, which limits her time to relax, be with her family or do extracurricular activities after school.

"She does homework, she eats and goes to bed," said Davis.

Another mother, Javanti Coleman, is at the expo with her two young daughters, dressed in matching pink and yellow plaid shirts. One of her biggest concerns: bullying.

"Because that's one of the issues that I face today, is that my kid gets bullied a lot," she said. "So I'm looking to put her in a better school that has a hold, control on bullying and things of that nature."

Davis, Coleman and thousands of others are applying for schools through OneApp, the city's central enrollment process. Families rank their top eight choices, and a computer algorithm matches students with schools.

It's a complicated process. A recent study found many families don't choose schools based solely – or even primarily – on academic letter grades. Factors like distance or extracurricular activities can be just as important. And finding a school that meets those needs takes more work than just attending the school expo at the Superdome.

"They're competing for kids," said Audrey Stewart, a public school parent and co-author of the "Parents Guide" - an independent guidebook 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."

The instrument demos and step performances might be information, but it's also hype. But, as Stewart points out, it "leaves parents having a hard time understanding day to day what's going on in a school."

Her guide is filled with numbers like class size and suspension rates. She says this information offers a fuller picture - especially given that many schools here follow a similar model: highly structured, with a heavy focus on testing.

"I think one of the things that surprised me was how many families wanted to know the school uniform colors. Knowing what the school uniform colors were, what they could work with that they already had, seemed to be a big concern."

Rebeccah Fleming, a school choice adviser.

The guide also includes practical information like whether a school offers after-care or transportation.

Rebeccah Fleming is a school choice adviser with the Recovery School District. She helps families navigate the enrollment process. Hidden costs – like paying for a new uniform – matter, especially in low-income households.

"I think one of the things that surprised me was how many families wanted to know the school uniform colors," she said. "Knowing what the school uniform colors were, what they could work with that they already had, seemed to be a big concern."

Of course, many families are vying for limited spots at the most highly-regarded, high-performing schools. Some of those have admissions requirements. Lashonda Jones has studied the grades of some schools here and isn't impressed.

"They was all maybe like a 'C' or a 'D,' and some was 'F.' 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," she said.

She wants to send her daughter to Ben Franklin High School. But that's a school with admissions criteria, and its own application. Is she excited about her backup options?

"No. Not at all."

Reporter

This segment aired on April 6, 2015.

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