New Orleans

How meaningful is school choice in New Orleans, the city of charters?

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Trenise Duvernay talks to Miracle Lee, left, and Danny Dinet, center, as she teaches fourth grade math class at the Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans.

Trenise Duvernaytalks to Miracle Lee, left, and Danny Dinet, center, as she teaches fourth grade math class at the Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Charter school supporters and advocates frequently point to the broad choices that families have when seeking a school in New Orleans, where most of the 82 public schools are charters and most accept applications from across the city. But the concept of choice butts against the reality of supply and demand in a city where many schools rate only average or below.

Nearly 12,000 children in New Orleans chose their desired schools through the city’s mostly unified enrollment system this spring — but only half got their No. 1 choice, according to recently released results.

About 30 percent got their second, third or up-to-eighth choice, the most applicants can rank. The remaining 20 percent or so were not matched to any requested school; half of them will stay at their current school and the other half will go through the second round of the enrollment process.

Related: Billboards and celebrities: How charters vie for students in hyper competitive New Orleans

Granted a wish, most parents likely would put their students in a high-performing school rather than a failing one, but the top-rated schools only have so many seats. So parents are left to “choose” from the rest.

After parents submit applications at the end of February, it’s a waiting game for five weeks until an email reveals their placement — and whether it’s their top choice.

Rebecca Lemon is among the 54 percent of families that got their No. 1 pick. Her 5-year-old daughter, Mia, will begin attending Bricolage Academy this fall. Bricolage is only 2 years old, which means the state hasn’t assigned it a letter grade yet.

“We were really nervous about where we might get in,” Lemon said.

She said the New Orleans Parents Guide was invaluable in their decision making process. Produced by a community organization, rather than any school system office, it is essentially the only unified source of public-school information, including information on academic programs, enrollment, school rating and extra-curriculars. The districts recently began funding a portion of its production.

Lemon, a former teacher, and her husband also narrowed their public school choices on principle.

“We wouldn’t want Mia at any school that accepts public funds but has selective enrollment,” Lemon said. “And I wouldn’t teach at any school that did that.”

Their criteria eliminated a handful of highly rated charter schools overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board that have selective admission. Charters overseen by the Recovery School District, all of which participate in OneApp, do not have selective admission policies.

While 5-year-old Mia is just entering school, students already enrolled in school see a lower match rate to their top choice. About 42 percent of students not entering kindergarten or ninth grade were matched to their top pick.

Some of those students requesting new schools were forced to do so. The state did not renew Lagniappe Academies charter, and Miller-McCoy Academy’s board of directors surrendered its charter. Both moves mean the schools will close for good this spring.

Related: Why Louisiana officials closed a struggling charter school while keeping a failing one open

Some Lagniappe Academies families say that effectively means their choice is being taken away from them. Parent Anthony Parker lamented the closing of the school in an interview with The Lens the week the announcement was made: “Why do I want the first round of OneApp when I made my choice last year for my son to come here?“

Parents attending state education board meetings frequently bemoan the dearth of schools directly run by the School Board, which has only five.

In the application process, the Recovery School District is quick to point out, the more choices a student lists on the OneApp, the more likely they are to get one of their choices, (basic statistics would tell you the same thing). And if they list eight schools, each is considered a “preferred” school, for the purposes of reporting on the OneApp success rate.

But sometimes, the schools many parents picked simply don’t have enough space to meet demand.

Edna Karr High School is one of them. The Orleans Parish charter school has a B rating. On the OneApp 1,476 rising eighth-grade students listed Karr as one of their choices. More than half of them, 777 students, listed Karr as their first choice. The high school only had 1,040 students total last year.

The OneApp selection uses software that takes a number of factors into account when placing students, including their ranking of schools and preferences for siblings or if a student’s current school is closing.

Of the 11,391 valid applications submitted through OneApp, which assigns students to a majority of the city’s schools, 75 percent of students got one of their top three choices. On the flip side, 2,325 students, were not matched to any school they wanted. About half of the unmatched students will apply again in a second round and the others will stay at their current school.

Related: The lost children of Katrina

OneApp is used to place students at public schools as well as private schools that accept vouchers. The idea behind the central application was to ease the process for both parents and school leaders, simplifying dozens of applications for parents and allowing schools to better track enrollment leading up to a new school year.

Until three years ago, charters managed their own enrollment systems. A parent would fill out a unique application for each charter school. If their student got into several schools, the schools may not find out until the first day of class whether the student accepted — when they had an empty seat. Or a parent may not have been accepted into any school.

This year, all RSD charter schools and direct-run Orleans Parish schools are included in OneApp. A handful of charters overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board are also participating, but several still maintain their own enrollment systems.

The OneApp included 39 A, B, or C-rated schools this year and 21 D or F-rated schools. Four schools are currently labeled ‘T’ for transition, meaning a new operator has taken over the school.

This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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