Many New Orleans Families Are Torn Between Public And Private Schools

May 10, 2016

This spring, families who applied to New Orleans public schools got some bad news. School placements were announced a week late. Why was that such a big deal? Many private school deposits were due. Families had to decide: pay up to reserve a seat or take a chance with the public charter school lottery, OneApp. More New Orleans families - those with enough resources - find themselves choosing between public and private education.

Jeneane Watson always assumed she’d send her kids to public school. That was the norm where she grew up, outside Baltimore.

“It was almost unusual, where I’m from, to go to private school,” she says. “It was, you know, not as socially acceptable."

But when she moved to New Orleans in 2008, she realized things worked differently.

“What I noticed about people who grew up around here is that it’s not even an option for them to send their kids to public school,” Watson says. “They just assume that they’re always going to be paying for private. It’s almost like you have to build it into your salary.

Statistics bear this out. Twenty-five percent of New Orleans students attend private school. That’s the highest percentage in the nation. More than twice the national average, according to a recent study from the real estate site Trulia.

There are lots of reasons for this. The popularity of parochial school in a deeply Catholic city. White flight and the resulting disinvestment from the public school system.

But for her five-year-old daughter, Sailor, Watson was determined to find “a good, free school.” So this year, when Sailor was ready for kindergarten, Watson got together her short-list. Only a few public charter schools met her criteria.

“I kept hearing over and over again, ‘we highly recommend that you put your top eight choices on your OneApp,’” Watson says. “But in all honesty, there are about four schools that I feel certain I would feel comfortable having my child attend as far as charter schools go.”

Watson knew if she only filled out a few of the eight blank lines, she might end up with nothing. That happened to her last year, when Sailor didn’t get a preschool seat through OneApp. So when the results were delayed this year, she started to get nervous and put down a deposit at a Catholic school as a backup. She lost that deposit, because Sailor did get into one of those charter schools: Lycée Français.

“I’m very, very happy with our results,” Watson says. “But the process is just so- it just makes you feel crazy.”

A lot of parents were feeling crazy. Because there’s a renewed interest in public schools from New Orleans middle and upper class families. But only for a few schools. And there are only so many spots.

Brian Beabout is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans. “I think the interest of middle class and white New Orleanians is constrained,” he says. “Families typically reduce all of the universe of choices down to a set of acceptable options.”

Parents want these schools because they want a less segregated, more socioeconomically diverse public school system. Some of them, like Watson, are transplants - more used to public schools. But some are native New Orleanians who may themselves have gone to private schools. These parents, Beabout says, “are really committed to participating in the public school system sort of an act of civic devotion.”

Audubon. Bricolage. Morris Jeff. Homer Plessy. Lycée Français. These are schools set up to attract a diverse mix of students, while the majority of public schools remain highly segregated, with mostly low-income students of color. If families with resources don’t get into these schools on the short-list, they opt for private school.

Still, this handful of charters is luring in new families. Are private schools concerned?

“The rise of charter schools over the years really hasn’t had a huge impact on us,” says Charleen Schwank. She’s the head of St. Paul’s Episcopal School, which serves pre-K through 8th grade. “Those people who are still looking for faith-based will choose faith-based. You know. And the people who are still looking for that low student-teacher ratio will still come in our door.”

Not only that, Schwank says some families who’ve tried out the popular charters also end up at her door.

“We have also gotten inquiries from people who’ve been in the public school system for a couple years, ready to look for a different fit,” she says. “That just wasn’t either what they thought or what they found out they needed.”

But Brian Beabout says the new crop of standout charter school does require private schools to prove their worth.

“Now any private school leader worth their salt is having to articulate and figure out very clearly what it is that we’re offering that’s special, that’s unique, and why you oughta spend your hard earned money here,” he says.

One reason to spend the money is if the OneApp lottery doesn’t get you what you want. When Dr. Eric Anthony Johnson started looking into kindergarten for his four-year-old son, Cameron, he wanted to find a neighborhood school where he could get involved.

“The first priority for us was basically proximity,” he says. “Maybe I’m old school. I just think like walking down the street, taking a stroll to walk your child to school, is important for our lifestyle choice.”

Johnson is from New Orleans and grew up walking to his neighborhood schools: Crocker, Cohen, Sophie B. Wright. He’d rather shell out the money for private school than send Cameron to school in another neighborhood. Johnson listed three schools on OneApp, the only schools that were close and high performing enough. Cameron didn’t get a placement.

“We we were not surprised,” he says. “So when I say we were disappointed, on a scale of one to ten we probably were at probably a seven because we kind of had the sense that that was gonna happen.”

But Johnson really wants to believe in New Orleans public schools. So much that he’s decided to pay for an extra year of private preschool and try again next year, in the hope that his son can have a shot at a good public education.

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