Are The Top New Orleans Public Schools Weeding Out Certain Kids?

Jan 30, 2018

In Part One of this series we heard about how one family is navigating the school enrollment process. Turns out, when you're trying to get into the best schools, it's complicated. There are a lot of steps. And it's hard even for someone with resources. WWNO's Jess Clark brings us back to the story of Kate Scheuermann and her son Remy. Kate is a sales manager for WWNO, and she's trying to get Remy into first grade at the district's top schools.

By the end of December, Kate and her husband Craig have spent hours flipping through the district's public school guide and attending meetings, open houses and filling out paperwork.

"It's almost college-level paperwork for a first-grade entry," Kate says.

It's hard for Kate. But it's even harder for low-income parents. Rashida Govan is with the Louisiana Urban League, which studies and advocates for African American and low-income families. The group recently released a report that highlighted what it says is unequal access for low-income and black families to the  city's top-performing schools.

"I’ve seen these families and worked with these families, and they'll do anything for their children. But those barriers are so significant — time being a very big one," Govan says.

Govan says many poor, working parents are already juggling multiple low-wage jobs. Many are also single parents. If they can make time for meetings and test dates, getting there is another problem.

"Something so very basic that I think middle-class people take for granted is access to a car," Govan says. "Twenty percent of New Orleans families don't even have a car."

Govan notes that many poor parents are also without easy access to the internet. And Govan says those barriers play out in the schools' demographics. The average student body in New Orleans public schools is 84 percent low income. Audubon’s low-income population is 45 percent. At Lusher, it’s just 15 percent. Govan says the application process also skews the racial make-up of these schools, since black families are on average much poorer than white families.

"Those are things that we know are exclusionary tactics" - Erika McConduit, Louisiana Urban League President

And there can be other barriers to getting into good schools.

When Kate finally fills out the OneApp her first choice is Edward Hynes in Lakeview. Kate and Craig went to the Hynes open house, and they were really impressed, especially with the campus. Parents raised $700,000 for new playground equipment.

"If you have that sort of parent involvement, you can really make a great school," Kate says.

A great school that's not equally accessible to everyone in this city.

The school has a special arrangement with the district that allows it to set aside extra seats for kids in its Lakeview neighborhood, one of the whitest, wealthiest zip codes in the city. Most elementary schools can set aside 50 percent of their seats for neighborhood kids. But Hynes is allowed to reserve 66 percent of its seats for Lakeview kids.

"Those are things that we know are exclusionary tactics," says Louisiana Urban League President Erika McConduit. "That even if it's intended or unintended, it has disparate outcomes."

McConduit says the Orleans Parish School Board needs to make to A-rated schools more accessible.

"If we have to course correct some, then that is the responsibility of the district," she says.

The district says it's already made adjustments in recent years, like requiring schools to make more seats available for kids outside their neighborhoods and help them with transportation. Hynes for example, buses in many low-income African American students from New Orleans East. A spokeswoman for Hynes also notes that while it may have a wealthier, whiter population than most New Orleans schools, nearly half of its students are low-income, and a third are black.

Hynes and Audubon also joined OneApp, the district's common enrollment tool, this school year, making enrolling easier for time-strapped families. Lusher is scheduled to join the OneApp in 2020, when its charter comes up for renewal. And Audubon and Hynes say they're trying to expand access to more kids by opening new locations. Audubon is opening a new campus in Gentilly this fall, and Hynes has an expansion in the works.

Ken Ducote is director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative for Charter Schools, which represents Audubon, Lusher and Hynes. He says these schools are not weeding out low-income families. They're attracting middle- and upper-income families.

"It was believed after desegregation that in order to serve children and community better, you had to prevent minority isolation," Ducote says.

Historically in New Orleans, white families and middle- and upper-income families have largely attended private schools. Some of the best public schools, like Lusher Charter School, were designed to attract those students into the public school system to be educated alongside their black and low-income peers.

Admissions policies aside, Ducote and the Louisiana Urban League both say the bigger issue is that there aren't enough good schools. Kate says if Remy doesn't get into any of her choices, she may consider private school, or even moving to Jefferson Parish.

"I don't know that outside of our choices that we've applied to that I would feel comfortable with Remy going to another school," Kate says.

Kate has options. But for low-income families, if they can’t get into one of the few A-rated schools, they're still stuck in the public school system. For those families, really good schools — schools with experienced teachers and high-quality curriculums — they often remain out of reach.

This was the second of a two-part series on applying to the city's top public schools. Part One follows Kate Scheuermann and her family as they try to enroll their son in first grade at some of the highest-demand schools.

Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.