The head of one of New Orleans’ newest charter schools spent the last year taking care of nearly everything needed for the first day of school — leasing buildings, drawing up a budget and hiring teachers. But one thing remained uncertain as the day approached: how many seats would be full.
Foundation Preparatory Charter School planned to open with a kindergarten class of 108 kids. At a minimum, it needed 40 students, Myrialis King, founder of the school in in eastern New Orleans, said in July. Ideally, 75. By late July, just 20 students had committed. So the school suddenly changed plans. On Aug. 11, as kindergartners were getting acquainted with their new school, the Orleans Parish School Board announced that Foundation Prep would add first grade beginning Aug. 17.
New Orleans’ nearly all-charter school system is built on competition, and for new schools, that means competing with established schools for students. It’s a daunting task for leaders of new schools. They don’t have a school letter grade or test scores to boast of. They must build relationships in the community and convince parents to take a chance on an unproven school.
“It has been hard,” King said about the recruiting process. “It’s hard for new schools. It’s hard for kindergarten.”
A lot rides on enrollment figures. Considering that state money brought in by six students can pay a teacher’s salary, falling short could mean a newly hired teacher must look for another job. A unified school district or large charter organization, on the other hand, is better equipped to absorb the financial impact of an enrollment shortfall.
Attracting students is just the first step. At all but a handful of charter schools, interested parents can’t simply sign their kids up. Instead, they’re instructed to choose the school on OneApp, the centralized application system for nearly all schools in the city. If new schools have trouble filling seats, they may be encouraged to change plans.
Cypress Academy also opened Aug 11. It planned to open with four kindergarten classes. When it couldn’t fill them, school leader Bob Berk replaced two with first-grade classes, which had more demand.“We said, ‘Sure, we’ll take first grade,” he said.
A study released earlier this year found that most charter leaders in New Orleans compete for students by marketing their schools: attending school fairs, hiring marketing consultants and buying ads. Foundation and Cypress have followed suit.
Foundation has recruited students by “knocking on doors, passing out flyers, having information sessions at pre-K and Head Start programs,” King said. Berk has made the rounds at daycares and Head Start early-childhood programs.
Foundation has advertised in Spanish-language and Vietnamese publications and on Facebook. Cypress has advertised in various publications and websites. Both have advertised at bus shelters. On paper, these schools are blank slates.
The New Orleans Parents’ Guide is an inch-thick guide to navigating schools in the city. It lists locations, teacher-student ratios, amenities such as after-school care, state-assigned rankings and standardized test performance. On the pages for Foundation Prep and Cypress Academy, almost everything is blank. In large letters over empty charts, it says,“PAST PERFORMANCE DATA NOT AVAILABLE FOR THIS SCHOOL.”
Foundation and Cypress emphasize reading skills. That sort of specialization — by curriculum, teaching methods or neighborhood — is another common tactic New Orleans charters use to stand out, according to the Education Research Alliance study.
King said it was by teaching fifth-grade English that she came to believe that “the opportunity gap, or achievement gap as some folks call it, is really a literacy gap.” She decided to put the school in eastern New Orleans because “we didn’t want to come into a place that was already saturated with schools. … And New Orleans East, when we applied [for a charter], had two students for every one seat available.”
This part of the city is far from the historic neighborhoods typically associated with New Orleans. Originally developed in the 1960’s, it’s made up of subdivisions squeezed between Lake Pontchartrain and marshes.
“Everything that we’ve done has come back to the community,” King said.
Foundation’s location was one reason Joshua Tran decided to enroll his son Joshua Jr. there. He lives nearby, knows a few of the employees and has talked with King several times.
“They are really connected to the community and it’s a safe place for my kid to go,” he said. “We trust them.”
Tyshanisha Henry enrolled her son Ty’shawn in Foundation’s kindergarten after meeting King at a school fair. She was drawn to the school because she wants Ty’shawn to learn a second language, and Foundation plans to offer Spanish and Vietnamese.
“It’s a new start for him [Ty’shawn] and a new start for them also,” Henry said. “So that was fine with me.”
Cypress’ focus arose from Berk’s experience as a school administrator. Some of the private schools he worked at weren’t well equipped to handle students with special-education needs. So he decided to start a school that was.
Cypress Academy, which employs a hands-on approach in the classroom, reserves 20 percent of its seats for students at risk for a reading disability. No other school in New Orleans does that, he said.
“We have a speech pathologist on staff because we think it’s so important that she works with our teachers, and that kids get more than 45 minutes a week or twice a week,” he said. “Our goal is to catch anybody who is at risk and bring them into the program.”
When Bricolage Academy was recruiting students for its first year in 2013, founder Josh Densen took applications at playgrounds, festivals and open houses. Everyone was entered into the school’s lottery that spring.
Now, new charters can’t close the deal in person. They have to use OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system.
Parents rank up to eight schools and the Recovery School District’s computer system tries to match students with their preferences. It’s easier for parents to apply to multiple schools, particularly those who can’t who take time off work or don’t have a car to drop off applications around the city.
But on OneApp, new schools are listed among dozens of public schools in the city. OneApp lists details like school performance for most schools; there’s less information on new ones. It may not even say where a school is located if it hasn’t secured a lease by the time OneApp starts in the fall.
“I do think that the immediacy of submitting an application at the point of contact is helpful for schools to accumulate applicants,” Densen said.
However, he believes Bricolage would have been full its first year even if had it used OneApp from the start. “I just don’t know where they would have ranked Bricolage,” he said.
The school did participate in the second round of OneApp, which occurred after Bricolage’s lottery. Matched students were placed on the waitlist. And it uses OneApp now.
Although OneApp adds another step to the application process, Berk doesn’t think it’s an obstacle. It’s meant to ensure equal access to schools, he said, and when he explains that to parents, “they totally understand,” he said.
“I think the value of it outweighs any struggle it presents,” he said.
During the summer, enrollment for most of the city’s schools takes place in person, on a first-come, first-served basis. As of Aug. 12, according to a OneApp report, 17 schools had more than 10 kindergarten seats available. Another 16 schools had between one and nine. That means there were at least 186 open kindergarten seats in the city. In both kindergarten and first grade, Cypress had less than 10 seats; Foundation had more than 10.
As of Monday, Aug. 10, Foundation didn’t offer first grade. The next morning, OneApp was accepting applications. OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a written statement that the school “is in a unique position to meet the repeated citywide requests from community members to open seats for students entering the first grade.”
As of Aug. 12, there were at least 119 first-grade seats open in New Orleans. Neither RSD, which runs OneApp, nor OPSB, which chartered Foundation, responded to repeated requests for the school’s current enrollment. King wouldn’t say, either. She said earlier in the month that she had hit her target and was “confident we will continue to grow next month.”
The state funds schools based on how many students are in class on Oct. 1. That gives King a bit more time to get students into seats. Based on conversations with district officials and educators, “We keep hearing we’ll have a lot of students who are coming in August or September,” she said.
One day in July, King picked up a mother who didn’t have a car and brought her to an enrollment center so she could sign up for Foundation. If the mother had walked into Einstein Charter School next door, she could have applied right there.
King waited outside the enrollment center at Dillard University for a couple hours. When the mother came out, she said she was told that her daughter, who doesn’t speak English, should be in first grade. So she agreed to put her in another school.
King told the mother that her daughter could attend Foundation Prep as a kindergartener. The mom went back in and asked to be switched.
“So,” King said, “they transferred her back over to us.”
This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.