Waiting In The Dark: In NOLA, School Choice Brings Early Mornings, Long Bus Rides

Oct 2, 2017

On a corner in the Ninth Ward, four elementary school kids are waiting for their bus under a street lamp. It's dark outside. A bony cat slinks across the street, and a rooster crows somewhere — prematurely since the sun is nowhere in sight.

Minutes later, headlights appear at the far end of the street, and a yellow school bus pulls up. The kids climb aboard and wave goodbye to David Brooks — dad to two of the kids and uncle to the others. Their school day has begun, and it's barely 6 a.m.

New Orleans is one of few cities in the country that's all in on charter schools. More than 90 percent of Orleans Parish public school students attend charter schools. Leaders of the city's post-Katrina education overhaul tout rises in student test scores, graduation rates, and ACT scores. But with those improvements have come new challenges for families when it comes to getting to school.

"I've seen many times we've come out here to the bus stop, and you got kids that are leaning up here against the building falling asleep," Brooks says.

For Brooks, early mornings are the tradeoff his family makes so he can send his kids to ReNew SciTech Academy, way across town in the Garden District. That ride can take more than an hour on the bus.

"I like the college preparatory schools though," Brooks says. "They're more engaged."

The tradeoff isn't worth it for everyone. Tashyra Marshall and her daughter Ta'Niyah Williams live in the Eighth Ward, four blocks from Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary and Middle School. That's where Marshall wants Ta'Niyah to go.

"I've been trying to get her in Bethune for at least about four years," Marshall says. "So I put on the OneApp — never gets it."

The OneApp: that's the online district enrollment tool that tries to match students with their parents' top  school choice. But the OneApp matched Ta'Niyah with Harriet Tubman Charter School over on the West Bank. It takes an hour to get there on the bus — and it's lower-performing than Bethune.

Ta'Niyah Williams walks gets dropped off near her home in the Eighth Ward after spending about an hour on the school bus.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO

By the time the bus drops Ta'Niyah off near her home one afternoon in September, it's almost 5 p.m. 

Ta'Niyah says it's tough getting home that late.

"Like, you probably don't have enough time to do your homework, and then you have to eat, you have to take a bath and stuff. And like, you can't watch TV probably, and I think you should probably get enough TV time," she says.

For Ta'Niyah and her mom, it comes back to the enrollment process. Marshall wants the district to go back to a neighborhood system, where kids attend the closest school. But school system leaders say there are a lot more parents like David Brooks, the dad in the Ninth Ward who likes that his kids can go to school at Sci Tech, even though it's in the Garden District.

The system does set aside half the seats in elementary and middle schools for students who live nearby — or, in the schools' zone. But most of the time, parents aren't choosing them. Gabby Fighetti works for the Recovery School District and oversees the OneApp process.

"What we have seen year over year," Fighetti says, "is that by-and-large families pick schools outside of their zone. Over 60 percent of all choices are schools outside of a family's zone."

Fighetti points to kindergarten classrooms — where, in nearly every school, parents are leaving those neighborhood seats unfilled, and sending their kids elsewhere. This is true for every elementary school except for a handful of high-demand schools — like Bethune.

"Why is that happening?" Fighetti asks. "If we're hearing from families that they want to attend school close to home, and I am telling you that by-and-large our kindergarten seats are not filling with all families who could fill it from the neighborhood, where is the disconnect there?"

Fighetti says it may be that they're mostly hearing from parents like Marshall, who live near a high-demand school they can't get into. And that brings up another question:

"How do we get schools better faster, so that there aren't just five schools that families want most, but there are 15, and 25 and 35?" she says.

In other words: how can school system leaders create a great school in every neighborhood?

That's what parents say they want, so their children don't have to sacrifice hours on a bus to attend a school that's just acceptable.

But that day is a long way off. In the meantime, it's hard for district leaders to see a way around leaving kids waiting in the dark.

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