In New Orleans, home of the most charter schools per child in the country, advertisements for the array of available educational options compete for attention with everything from “Lost Pet” fliers to signs for political campaigns.
Posters advertising newly-opened charter schools are tacked up to telephone poles and plastered on the sides of the city’s iconic streetcars. Placards touting “open enrollment” to parents–many of whom are only beginning to grasp the concept–mushroom up in the grassy neutral ground between traffic lanes. Banners announcing vacancies hang over school doors.
To recruit students, charter officials have been known to pay for radio and billboard space, set up booths outside Wal-Mart and canvas door-to-door. Last summer, leaders from one school even followed ice-cream trucks around town to recruit children and their parents.
And once children enroll, the campaigning does not end. Students clothed in school uniforms emblazoned with charter insignia–and slogans such as “wisdom” and “respect”–become effectively, walking, talking mini-billboards for the places where they learn.
For most parents in the new New Orleans, the process of selecting schools for their sons and daughters offers — not unlike most post-Hurricane Katrina life — a dizzying array of new options.
Nearly four years after Katrina swept away much of New Orleans, residents who decided to come home have returned to find an almost unrecognizable school system, one where charter schools have replaced traditional schools in unprecedented numbers. This past school year, these privately-run, publicly funded hybrid schools served a staggering 56 percent of all New Orleans students and as they add grade levels each year, some estimate that charters will serve as many as 65 percent of New Orleans public school students in 2009-2010.
But even the familiar, old-school, traditional schools, are changed. The entire Orleans Parish district, including non-charters, is now “open-choice” — meaning that students can choose to attend any school anywhere in the district and, by law, be provided transportation.
— Aesha Rasheed,
New Orleans Parent Network
Charter schools and “choice” have moved from the realm of fringe ideas to the mainstay of the New Orleans educational system at such a clip that parents have been left wondering. Because the school system brought in massive numbers of charters at the same time the city began massive rebuilding, many mothers and fathers have yet to realize that charter schools exist in town for reasons beyond the destruction of their old neighborhood ones.
According to a recent survey conducted by the New Orleans Parish School Board, the average New Orleanian believes schools have improved since the storm, said Thelma French, an administrator with the board. But most have little clue about the difference between the way charter schools and public schools are governed — thinking, mistakenly, that charter schools are private ones.
“I think there’s still a lot of confusion about what ‘choice’ is about,” said Aesha Rasheed, director of the New Orleans Parent Network, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping parents navigate the area’s balkanized patchwork of charter and non-charter public schools.
Each year, the parent network prints a parents’ guide that is updated several times throughout the school year and distributed at public libraries. The guide provides school statistics and questions for parents to ask principals. It outlines students’ rights in charter schools and explains the enrollment process– crucial information for parents unused to filling out school applications.
Supply and Demand
Public schools in New Orleans have had more seats than students to fill them for at least three decades, ever since the late 1960s and early 1970s, with integration and the white flight that followed. The last time capacity matched enrollment was in 1970. When Katrina hit, children filled only about half the available slots in the system’s schools. According to Orleans Parish School Board reports, 63,000 children were enrolled in a system that could hold up to 107,000.
When the levees broke in August 2005, enrollment dropped to zero, with all but 16 of 126 school buildings sustaining damage. Three months later, the state legislature passed a bill that transferred authority of 112 New Orleans schools to a state-run Recovery School District. Certain types of charters were given the green light to develop without limits. And the federal government helped out by earmarking nearly $21 million to stimulate charter-school development.
— Caroline Roemer Shirley,
Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools
The flood meant that many damaged schools closed, creating a fundamental shift in the supply-and-demand system that rules the charter game: Today, the district runs only slightly under capacity with the number of students in the district nearly maxing out an available 35,000 seats. More importantly, students who trickled back to town post-storm are now free agents, operating inside a competitive atmosphere that never existed before. Recruiting them has become a game of musical chairs, and every child is in play.
“There is some competition and animosity, and a fear that schools are trying to put each other out of business. And that fear is not all false,” said French, of the school board. “Our state superintendent talks about the philosophy of competition.”
The No. 1 commodity schools compete for is students. Charters’ lifeblood — in other words, funding — is the per-pupil allotment of public money that follows every student in the state to the school where he or she enrolls, and getting kids planted behind desks has traditionally been one of the biggest challenges for charter operators.
As of December 2008, the population of New Orleans reached 73.7 percent of its pre-Katrina level, according to the New Orleans Index, which monitors the post-Katrina social and economic recovery of the Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, combined public- and private-school enrollment reached only 59 percent of its pre-Katrina numbers, well below other figures that represent the population’s overall recovery — suggesting that fewer families with children live in the city than before the storm.
It’s a simple Economics 101 question of supply and demand, and the school district has evolving accordingly. This past year, the city’s first charter school was shuttered after a decision to do so by the school’s own board. And in September, only four new charter schools will open, compared to eight in 2008-2009, a major slowdown from the rush to reopen schools immediately after the storm. All four of the newcomers will not be new schools, but “transformation” schools — educational jargon for schools that, instead of starting from scratch, are incubated inside the building of a failing school.
A transformation school inherits the old school’s student population, and “transform” its operations, adding a grade each year until it takes over the old school completely. Though three new high schools will open to accommodate rising grades in the 2010-2011 school year and are seeking people to operate them, no new elementary or middle schools have been granted charters for 2010, because there is no need in the system to offer more slots for enrollment.
“In New Orleans, we are pretty much at our saturation point,” said Caroline Roemer Shirley, the daughter of former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a New Orleans-based lobbying group. “Now is the time for these charters to perform or be closed down.”
Feeling the Heat
The countdown to the first day of school is on at the headquarters of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit group that works to launch and support new charter schools. This year, that includes the four new transformation schools
Until their schools open for business, all four principals make their offices in one room at the New Schools building located in the Audubon section of town in an office park that has become a sort of unofficial education complex. It houses Roemer Shirley’s lobbying group, New Leaders for New Schools, Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives and, until recently, a teacher-recruiting outfit called TeachNOLA.
— Niloy Gangopadhyay,
Success Preparatory Academy
In a white-walled room decorated with motivational signs with phrases like “No Excuses in Pursuit of Achievement,” one pair of cubicles is home to St. Claire Adriaan and Niloy Gangopadhyay, two educators who plan to launch Success Preparatory Academy, a transformation school that will take over at Albert Wicker Academy. Their budget and model requires 224 students to operate, but with just two months to go after canvassing housing projects, passing out fliers at local discount store hosting a crawfish boil and going door to door to recruit, they still had little more than the 96 kindergartners and first- and second-graders from Wicker they were already slated to inherit.
“We have everything set for this dream, but if we don’t get the children in a couple of months, we’ve got to let people go, and that’s a harsh reality,” said Gangopadhyay.
He and Adriaan say that New Orleans parents don’t give school much thought until after the summer months have passed — a date too late too late for them to wait for the commitments their funding depends on.
“At the end of the day, there’s a saying about, ‘if you build it, they will come,’” said Gangopadhyay. “You know, we’re having a hard time. We built it, and we’re having a hard time marketing and branding that in this competitive environment.”
A few cubicles over Duke Bradley III, sits at the helm of Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School, one of the other transformation schools slated to open this fall. He has been pounding the pavement, visiting homes of prospective students with a pen and school contract in hand. His school will make it home in the building of George Washington Carver Elementary in the Desire section of town.
On a recent visit to the home of Will Etheridge and Virgie Celius, parents of three little girls already on the Carver roster, Bradley gave his sales pitch.
The Door to Door Salesman
Duke Bradley and the selling the Transformation School
The Etheridges, who are raising ten children on an income of $500 a week, said they were happy about Bradley’s promises to put their daughters on the college track, and agreed to the strict uniform, homework and parental involvement Mays requires.
“I’m just a guy trying to make sure my kids — and several more kids that need a daddy — can get grown,” Etheridge said. He liked Mays’ tough standards and talk of accountability. “I don’t want my kids pushed through school because in the long run it will hurt them.”
Yet, he and Celius said they failed to enroll their youngest daughter in school last year after they heard she was turned away from pre-kindergarten. And when Bradley left the room to retrieve some uniforms from his car, Etheridge turned to Celius and asked, looking perplexed, why a new school with a new name was setting up shop in their old neighborhood school building.
“I thought they were going to Carver,” Mr. Etheridge said.
Not surprisingly, the Etheridges’ choice of a charter school had more to do with proximity than anything else. They happened to live in the zone for the old Carver population, so despite the choices they now have, it is likely their daughters were going to show up for school at the Carver building whether or not Bradley showed up at the door. It’s a phenomenon that illustrates a long-held New Orleans notion: strong connection to the land and the people who live there. For years, public schools with deep roots in communities served children, and the parents who came before those children. Now, new school leaders may be able talk at length about the distinctions between charter-school names and charter-school philosophies. To most parents, however, those details are abstractions. Though the Etheridge household is happy with what fell into their laps, they didn’t choose choice. It simply happened to them.
More than a month later, they still didn’t entirely understand the system they signed up for. Since Bradley’s June visit, Etheridge packed up his family and moved to an address 20 minutes away from the school because of landlord troubles. They used to be just five minutes away, which had Etheridge worried his kids won’t be allowed to go to Mays anymore.
“I don’t know if a school bus will come that far east,” Etheridge said. “There’s another elementary school close by and I don’t know if they’ll force them to go that other school.”
Though Etheridge is enthusiastic about Mays Prep, because he doesn’t understand that charters must bus his children no matter where they live in the district, it’s possible the school could lose his daughters as students.
It could be said that the market for New Orleans charters offers as many options to parents as the array of parades that march through town in the months before Mardi Gras. One school focuses on Hispanic culture, another offers classes in Vietnamese, while yet another offers foreign-language immersion in a string of Romance tongues. One high school focuses on math and science; another, on the arts. One school has a top-notch marching band, while others have no sports or extracurriculars. Some lack special education services and in-house social workers; others, on the flipside, emphasize them. Some schools run extended-day programs, others hold class on Saturdays. The dizzying variety makes choosing an elementary school in New Orleans akin to shopping for a college education.
Then, of course, parents can look at standardized test scores and the state report card scores that are tallied for each school, which are published in Rasheed’s parents’ guide. But with so many new schools, some of the data is only one year old or does not exist at all, making it difficult for parents to make informed choices and further undercutting charters’ argument that the best will rise to the top.
Rasheed takes it as her mission to help area parents parse these specialties and attributes to find the best fit for their child’s needs. But without a proven record for every school, when it comes to selecting an education for their child, parents often go by gut-level impressions rather than data and statistics.
Terri Gibson is one parent who chose a school without the help of Rasheed’s guide. She couldn’t afford to pay for her sons’ education at a Catholic school after Katrina decimated their home and the school in the Lower Ninth Ward. The school left standing in the neighborhood — a public one — wasn’t reaching her storm-traumatized middle son, Zion, who started misbehaving, doing poorly in class and, within a year, had failed second grade. She prayed to find a new school for him, and, she said those prayers were answered when she stumbled across an advertisement for Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. The poster portrayed four smiling children beside the slogan, “Yes, we label our students,” along with their future occupations — astronaut, teacher, doctor and president.
“I ran across a sign from Andrew Wilson, and they labeled the kids in a positive way, and I saw the school. It looked a little cute castle,” said Gibson. “I met the principal, I met the teachers and it was a godsend to me.”
It sounds like a fairy tale, and in this case, one with a happy ending. Gibson soon enrolled Zion and her youngest son, Joshua. She liked the school so much that she became an AmeriCorps-paid tutor there. Maybe it was God or some other kind of serendipity that sent her in Wilson’s direction — but it certainly wasn’t a calculated choice based on the kind of careful research of the accountability-bound statistics that charter school advocates publicly tout while privately spending considerable chunks of their budgets on the voodoo of clever advertising - hoping they’ll snag one more customer.
How a sign helped one lost student find his place in the Post-Katrina school landscape
Charters may have one very distinct, market-driven advantage when it comes to one piece of the education pie in New Orleans; they are tuition-free.
Gibson isn’t the only parent who has left Catholic schools for charter schools after Katrina. A small trickle of parents who have paid parochial school tuition for years are figuring out that the better-performing charter schools in New Orleans are offering college prep-style educations — at no cost.
Middle-class New Orleanians who could afford to take refuge in parochial schools from the dismal pre-Katrina public school system historically did so for a number of reasons; family tradition, religion, exemption from the state LEAP test — and race. Before Katrina, almost half of New Orleans’ students — predominantly the white, middle- and upper-class student — were enrolled in private and parochial schools, while the poorly performing public schools were about 90 percent black, creating, in effect, a de facto segregated education system.
— Sarah Comiskey,
Archdiocese of New Orleans
When Holy Name of Mary Academy on the West Bank of New Orleans closed in June after 152 years, Patricia and Marty Bruce enrolled their 9-year-old son Sam at a public charter, leaving the religion and rosaries of the parochial system behind.
The Bruces are one of four Holy Name of Mary families who chose charter schools. Their decision was based on a mix of factors, including the charter school’s academics and proximity. Sam now has to walk just a few blocks away from home. But the decision was also largely influenced by the bottom line.
“It was a financial decision,” Patricia Bruce said.
Now, at a time when money is tight for many families, with fewer students in the New Orleans education marketplace and the increased allure of high-performing, low-cost charter schools, the Bruces could be one of the first white, middle-class families to buy back into the free public school system. In the 2007-2008 schoolyear, 85 percent of Alice Harte Elementary students were black.
Competing with Jesus
“That word you said there, that ‘free’ word, is a huge, huge factor,” said Sarah Comiskey, spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish Archdiocese. “Families are asking for unprecedented amounts of financial aid. The economy is huge factor.”
Requests to the archdiocese for financial aid doubled within the last year, Comiskey said, with $10 million given away even while the parochial schools’ enrollment experienced a slight decline. Before Katrina, the parochial schools had 50,000 students. Catholic schools were some of the first to open their doors after the storm, and initially enrolled 44,000, while temporarily waiving tuition. As public schools have reopened though, that number has trickled down. Fewer than 40,000 kids are predicted to enroll this fall. Buoyed by increased enrollment in pre-Kindergarten programs, the archdiocese expects enrollment to level off between 39,000 to 41,000 students.
“We do know that there’s increased competition so we are aware that our numbers will probably drop,” Comiskey said.
There is some evidence that the high number of charter schools in the area have already made a dent in private school enrollment, which fell by 302 students between 2007 and 2008 despite a new school voucher program offered by the state. In that same time frame, according to the New Orleans Index, enrollment in the public school system was up by 4,424.
Jeff Henig of Columbia University’s Teachers College says parochial schools should be more threatened than traditional public schools by the competition that charters pose.
“If charters talk and look like private schools, but you can go for free,” Henig said, “it makes sense that they would be attractive to parents.”
About the Author: Alexandra Fenwick is a multimedia journalist who has worked as a reporter in daily newspapers in New Jersey and Connecticut for four years, including one year as an education reporter. She grew up on the Jersey shore, split her high school career between public school and private boarding school and later studied writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She had a happy childhood, rode her bike everywhere and rarely got detention. She is trying to replicate that experience as an adult. Her byline has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Stamford Advocate, the Tribeca Tribune and Condé Nast's Portfolio.com. She graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in May 2009 and is currently an associate editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.