New Orleans

Is school choice helping or hurting Catholic schools in New Orleans?

Fresh on the job, the city’s first black Catholic schools chief remains optimistic in face of flagging enrollment, new competition

RaeNell Houston

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

RaeNell Houston heard the calling to be an educator years ago. A former teacher, she has served as associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans since 2012. She takes her seat as the head of the school system — an appointment by New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond —  in July.  Houston, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Orleans and a master’s degree from Louisiana State University, is the first black person in the history of the Archdiocese to fill this role.

In a news release announcing Houston’s assignment to lead schools in eight parishes and more than 3,500 students, Aymond said: “She (Houston) brings with her the professional experience and expertise necessary to lead our schools…She is a woman of strong faith and family, and is well prepared to lead our school family.”

As a longtime member of this family, Houston knows firsthand that she has her share of challenges ahead. Among them are declining enrollment in Catholic schools and growing public scrutiny over private school vouchers. However, she is equipped and enthusiastic to continue on the path of promoting Catholic education.

Question: Do you feel that youre in competition with charter or secular private schools?

Answer: I think today, in New Orleans in particular, that parents are empowered with school choice. You’re not assigned to a particular school based your address. Parents are empowered with finding the school that is the best fit for their children. The competition has always existed with other private schools as well as public schools, but I think that’s a positive thing.

I am seeing a lot more targeted marketing by schools on TV, radio and billboards marketing schools to particular groups of parents. This is a discussion we’ve been having… (how to) develop a strategic and robust marketing campaign for Catholic education in general, and of course, assisting our schools with their more targeted marketing.

Q: How have your admissions and retention trends been over the past two years?

A: We have fluctuation in numbers, of course. There’s no big trend of students leaving Catholic schools for other private school or public schools here. Usually, a student will transfer from one Catholic school to another Catholic school, if needed. Most of the parents that come in looking for an alternative (to their current school) are those that have moved to a different neighborhood, or have some other personal or household issue. If there is a financial issue, we always try to assist as much as we can so that the student can remain in our system and matriculate.

All of our schools have some amount of financial assistance set aside for families in need of financial assistance. We have the annual Champions of Catholic Education collection in February. Every church in the archdiocese has a second collection. Those funds are distributed to families who are in need of financial assistance.

Q: How many of your students receive assistance in the form of vouchers? 

A: We have about 3,000 students that participate in the scholarship program and a little more than 700 in the newer program, the tuition donation rebate program.

The scholarship program is what people typically refer to when they talk about vouchers. The tuition donation rebate program is administered by school tuition organizations. They work with us to secure private donations to fund scholarship awards (up to $4,100 for K-8 and up to $4,600 for high school). The balance of tuition after the award is the responsibility of the families.

Once it is certified that donations were used for children to go to school, the donors get up to 95 percent of their money back as a rebate from the Louisiana Department of Revenue. Most donors “recycle” their donation year after year.

Q: In a March 3 article by The Times Picayune/Nola.com, it was reported that the state voucher program earned a D for school year 2016. Among some of the schools listed were some of your schools, most notably St. Augustine.

Would you like to respond to this?

A: I’m glad you asked that. We were not invited to comment on this story.

The article addresses the scholarship program as a whole; so statewide that’s about 8,000 students. We have about 3,000. In any school system, you have high performers and low performers.

We have seen tremendous growth in our students over the past three years.

This is one sliver of data that people are looking at. Our participation in the scholarship program varies. We have schools that have one scholarship student and schools that have 400 students. Those schools that have the highest numbers are succeeding, according to the state.

We have some schools that are struggling. In most of those cases, like St. Augustine, for example, the number of scholarships students is 20 percent. This is where the issue of curriculum alignment comes in. Hypothetically, 20 percent of my students are taking the state assessment (because they get state funding through scholarships/vouchers) and the remaining 80 percent are taking the ACT Aspire. But the curriculum at St. Augustine is geared toward ACT more than the state assessment… and last year 100 percent of their students were accepted to college. So, in some ways, this is an unfair measurement. However, we are working hard to find a balance since some of our students do have to take the state assessment.

Q: Do you consider your graduation and college matriculation rates to be high?

A: Our graduation rate is close to 100 percent. For the six years I’ve been here, the ACT scores have been above the state average every year. I personally haven’t seen any kind of decline. Most qualify for TOPS (the state college scholarship program) assistance. Most do go to college.

Q: How important is diversity to your schools?

A: Diversity is a big term. We strive for a diverse student body in all of our schools. What’s most important to me is that we are providing all our kids with a quality education. We are actively recruiting and seeking families from diverse backgrounds. Diversity is a big term. We’ve come a long way, and I think we still have some work to do. I am proud of the work that has been done. As principals bring the needs of our students to our attention we work on them. For example, our Hispanic population has grown since Hurricane Katrina, so we are working with English as a second language students and educators.

I don’t want any child or family to walk away from a school or a church saying that we turned our backs on them. That’s really important. I have a child with special needs. Having acceptance is so important, especially for people who are Catholic and have been Catholic all their lives. I know that is the sentiment in the Diocese.

Q: Tell me a bit about the legacy of Catholic schools in this city. Its almost fraternal.

A: Yes! When you go to most places and get asked “Where did you go to school?” In New Orleans, they’re usually asking about high school. It means a lot to alumni. They really attach themselves. It’s part of the formation of who they are.

Q: Why Catholic schools?

A: Every day that I get an alert from the news, it’s about violence, murder, racism… I feel like our Catholic schools are one of the biggest weapons we have to fight against those issues.

We form the whole person. We are giving them (students) academics, but we are also forming character, their hearts and their faith… in the image of Christ. Our first goal is to prepare them for Heaven and the second goal is to prepare them for life here on earth, to be successful. We’re not trying to make everybody Catholic. We’re trying to make them good people.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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