How 3 top New Orleans public schools keep students out
May 31, 2016
By: Danielle Dreilinger
At Audubon Charter School in Uptown New Orleans, preschoolers sat silently, absorbed in the task of using tweezers to place miniature pompoms in cups. Each carried a personally tailored list of skills for the day. Down the hall, another preschool teacher held up two bags of flour and asked in French, “Quelle quantité,” how many, to a chorus of “deux!”
At Lake Forest Charter in New Orleans East, students walked the halls trailing book-stuffed rolling backpacks like a bunch of business travelers. Outside was the school’s swimming pool for aquatics lessons.
Children at Lusher Charter in Uptown twirled in a dance studio lined with mirrors. On a second grader’s worksheet, the 21st question was, “How are estivating and hibernating animals alike?”
These are among the most popular and high-rated public schools in a city that has gained a national reputation for turning most schools over to charter operators, and for trying to help students who live with poverty and crime. But few outsiders see the exclusive, privileged side of New Orleans public education.
Along with setting academic requirements at some or all grades, and narrow admissions priorities, these three schools impose mind-numbingly complex application processes that test a parent’s savvy, access to transportation and ability to get off work.
For years, these schools have been accused of secretly saving seats for children from well-connected families. Their leaders say they don’t, that they conduct transparent and fair public lotteries for admission. They argue that their policies are intended to equalize opportunity, not limit it.
But the question of whether a handful of children get a wink and a nod pales in comparison to the larger number of students who are effectively excluded from attending, public education advocates say — the children who arguably most need help.
The result: a student body that looks nothing like almost every other public school in the city.
Procedures and priorities
Since Hurricane Katrina, every public school parent in New Orleans has had to apply for a school; there are no assignments by home address. To make enrollment easier and equalize opportunity, the city’s two school systems set up acommon application process, OneApp. Families list as many as eight schools, and a computer matches them with open spots. It requires little more than a parent’s signature.
But Audubon, Lake Forest and Lusher are among the last seven schools that don’t use OneApp. Instead each deploys a unique set of requirements so complicated that parents have made spreadsheets to keep track of the steps, which, as per the schools’ websites and extensive conversations with staff, include some combination of:
- Parent attendance at a meeting
- A questionnaire filled out by the parent showing they understand the school’s curriculum
- An application hand-delivered to the school during business hours
- A portfolio of the student’s work
- The child’s school attendance record
- Scores from a single sitting of a standardized exam, with no retests allowed
Within these details are more details. Lusher applicants, for example, must submit a profile detailing the student’s experience and interests in the arts, even if the student is only 4 years old. The school office will not accept applications from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., lunchtime for prospective parents with day jobs.
For kindergarten applicants, Lake Forest requires a hand-drawn self-portrait, a second piece of artwork and a handwriting sample. The artwork may not be three-dimensional or include food items such as macaroni, and it can’t be a sheet from a coloring book. Lake Forest also specifies a pocketed folder of a particular color, which changes each year; for 2016, it was red.
All these activities earn points on a scorecard, called a “matrix” by staff. If children don’t meet a minimum total, they are declared ineligible. Despite the extra pieces and activities, test scores make up the largest share of the possible point total. Lusher posted its scoring matrix online this year; Lake Forest did not.
Audubon has the same kind of point system for third grade and up. Below third grade, there’s no exam or scorecard. Operations manager Alisa Dupre emphasized that the school is not academically selective in the early grades.
But families are disqualified if they do not attend a curriculum meeting, to which they may not arrive late. Signup for these meetings is online; according to the Eventbrite website, parents were required to show their drivers license, auto insurance and auto registration if they wanted to park at one meeting location.
Further, this year Audubon had a double process for preschool admission. Getting in early is a big deal because those children automatically advance to elementary, where they typically fill about 60 percent of the kindergarten seats, Dupre said.
This year, for the first time, Audubon had to use OneApp for some of its preschool seats: those that the state funds for low-income children. But it ran a separate, parallel process where other families applied directly at the school for paid seats, bypassing the citywide common application. Some of those seats might be subsidized too, by the school, for lower-income families. To find out what they would pay, parents were told to answer 20-plus questions, some as detailed as anything found on a tax form, on a website that charged a fee to access the calculation form.
Dupre said she advised low-income parents to apply through both channels, to maximize their chances.
The order of entry
After determining which students qualify, Audubon, Lake Forest and Lusher each admits the pool in order of priority, with lotteries if there is more demand than supply. There always is, school leaders said.
Audubon prioritizes students who have a grounding in its two specialties, French and Montessori, plus siblings and staff children. About 50 of Audubon’s 832 students are French nationals, Dupre said. All the children who got into the Montessori program for 3-year-olds last fall had parents who worked for the school or siblings already there.
Lusher reserves some seats for the children of Tulane University faculty, staff and graduate students. In exchange, Tulane provides student teachers at no cost and free classes for high school students, among other privileges. Tulane contributed more than $1 million to reopen the school after Hurricane Katrina, university spokesman Keith Brannon said.
In addition, Lusher has long guaranteed kindergarten admission to residents of a small geographic area around the school. However, the Orleans Parish School Board has decided to end that privilege in the fall.
After the priority groups, Lusher and Lake Forest reserve most of their remaining open spots for students who score highest on their scorecard.
Representatives of all three schools expressed complete confidence that their admissions processes were fair.
In fact, Lake Forest principal/chief executive Mardele Early and Lusher chief executive Kathy Riedlinger said anything else would be illegal. That’s because those two schools still use the rules the Orleans Parish School Board set in 1998 to settle a federal civil rights investigation into some magnet schools’ wildly unequal racial enrollment. The rules required schools to use multiple admissions criteria, not just standardized test scores.
For older students, schools could check report cards and attendance records. But 4-year-olds don’t have those. Hence the parent meetings, questionnaires and student portfolios. “It’s just simple things for students to get points” on the scorecard, Early said. In fact, the Lake Forest portfolio and Lusher arts profile aren’t scored for content — just for completion.
Because of the multiple steps, and because students with priority status need only meet the cutoff score, “You can get in as an average kid,” Lusher Lower School Principal Sheila Nelson said. “What’s really wonderful here is that you have this environment with kids of differing levels.”
Early said the same thing about Lake Forest: a 4-year-old could qualify with a middling score on the tests, or could fail one subject.
So why test? It “provides us an idea of where they are and whether they’ll be able to handle the curriculum,” Early said. Lake Forest sees itself “as the Spelman and the Morehouse of New Orleans,” referring to two prestigious historically black colleges. The school’s goal is for 85 to 90 percent of students to enter graduate school, she said.
Audubon starts testing for admissions for third grade because the Montessori style is so independent that “kids who are not average kids can’t keep up with the work,” Dupre said. In addition, French proficiency exams begin after kindergarten, one year earlier than similar public schools, and include a limited writing component. Otherwise, first graders would already be too far behind with the language, she said.
But Caroline Roemer, director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, scoffed at all of it. When school leaders say they test because they “want all kids to show up the first day prepared to learn,” Roemer said, “that’s code for, ‘We want to set up obstacles so kids who are harder to teach don’t come to our school.'”
And Rand Corp. researcher Laura Hamilton warned against relying on standardized test scores for 4-year-olds. Children that young don’t get the same results from week to week, and their results don’t predict their scores on similar tests later on, she said.
A bright kid on a bad day may flunk. Hamilton said some young children can’t sit still long enough to take the test. Or they could be hungry or tired, and unable to compensate for that as older children can. Lusher and Lake Forest offer special accommodations for a disability, but many children aren’t diagnosed that young. On the other side, wealthier families might prep 4-year-olds for school entrance exams, she said.
Even when schools have other ways for 4-year-olds to earn points on a scorecard, using a test means “there is a high likelihood that there are students being excluded from that school who would be successful there,” Hamilton said.
As for the required meetings and such at the three New Orleans schools, she said, “It sounds like with those things, what they’re really measuring is parental interest and commitment.”
A more comprehensive assessment might include a portfolio of the child’s work — one that is evaluated, not just filed as at Lusher and Lake Forest — and an observation of the child’s behavior, Hamilton said. Any of these measures can be coached, but taken together they provide a better picture of the child’s abilities.
How hard is it?
Applying to Lake Forest, Early said, is “very simple and very easy for parents to do.” She had explanations for the more arcane application rules. Artwork made with food items rots, for example, and the special-color folder makes it easier to find each year’s files.
Early said she had not heard any complaints from parents. She thought opposition to Lake Forest admissions was propaganda put out by unspecified opponents. Indeed, some education groups have put heavy pressure on Lake Forest and the other OneApp holdouts. These schools are required to join eventually, but not yet.
“We can’t get involved in the politics and the focus of political folks who want us to do it their way,” Early said. “The students that God gives me to prepare, that’s what I work with.”
Riedlinger, of Lusher, said she didn’t see a solution that would satisfy everybody. “Any time you have a whole lot of people who want to come someplace, if they get in, they’re really happy, and if they don’t get in, they’re not,” she said. “Whatever process you come up with, I can only fit 690 kids in this building.”
But several local education leaders say the hurdles amount to unreasonable deterrents that discriminate against disadvantaged families. These families are less able to jump through hoops no matter how bright their children are or how much they want them to succeed.
“Those small impediments and small additional steps can inhibit them from following through,” said Tulane researcher Doug Harris. He found Lusher’s rules in particular “incredibly confusing.” Even Roemer, the head of the state’s charter school association, found it stressful to apply to Lusher for her son.
Aesha Rasheed, editor of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools, said the issue wasn’t whether schools intended to discriminate; it’s whether their policies resulted in discrimination.
The leaders of Audubon, Lusher and Lake Forest are “not sitting around thinking ‘How can we make life even more difficult for people who already have a hard time?'” Rasheed said. But families tell her they can’t complete the applications at these three schools. If the schools don’t want to exclude disadvantaged parents, “now is the time to look at their practices.”
Audubon and Lake Forest officials said they could be flexible: Parents could ask to mail the application, send another relative to the meeting, register for the meeting over the phone or come in to review the curriculum one-on-one. Low-income applicants for Audubon’s preschool can ask for a code for free access to the website that calculates their tuition. And Dupre said that despite what the Eventbrite website originally said, the parking lot did not require a license and registration unless the driver wanted to leave their car overnight.
Still, Rasheed said administrators didn’t get it: “The answer the schools will give is, ‘Of course we’ll work with you,’ but how would you know that?” A truly welcoming school will make the process as easy as possible, instead of making families ask for exceptions, she said.
And exceptions were not always available. When Tara Madden went to drop her daughter’s application off at Audubon, she saw the office send away a parent who had forgotten to photocopy a required document, she said. That mother didn’t have a car and there was no copy shop in walking distance, so she had to take the bus.
The parent perspective
Some parents apply to Audubon, Lake Forest and Lusher and complain about it. Others, however, take a message away from the complex processes: They aren’t wanted.
Joy Mitchell runs Children’s Palace Learning Academy preschool in New Orleans East. Her aspiring Lake Forest parents “say that it becomes very taxing on them.” They didn’t understand the point of the various steps, such as the colored folder. The mandatory meeting? “They feel like it’s a form of screening the family.”
And that was the middle-income families. Low-income families at Children’s Palace don’t apply to Lake Forest at all, she said.
Two other preschool directors also said their low-income families didn’t apply to Lusher, Audubon or Lake Forest. “Everybody assumes it’s out of their reach,” said Sonjia Joseph of Clara’s Little Lambs in Algiers. Her parents’ perception — and she emphasized she didn’t know whether it was accurate — was that these schools functioned like a private school and chose who they wanted.
“It’s not a very easy system to apply to, and they don’t provide transportation (for students), so that limits the people they are going to attract,” Joseph said. Some Lusher and Franklin families who live in Algiers pay more than $900 per year to put their children on a privately hired van.
Lamont Douglas, an air-conditioning technician, father and education blogger, said he had never met anyone who went to Lake Forest or Lusher. When the application process was described to him, he said, “It sounds almost like the Hunger Games!”
Benita Butler works from home, has a car and is good with details. She easily navigated the far simpler application for Ben Franklin High for her elder child. Applying to Lusher for her younger, however, was scary.
“I had to go to the doctor’s office and get the shot records,” she said, “go to the post office, get the stamps. … You have to write little essays about your child’s exposure to dance.” She added, “Thank God my child did participate in these various arts, so it was fine.”
Butler was boggled to hear that she could have written anything at all on the arts profile and received the same points.
“You just ask: ‘Why?’ It’s a public institution, a public school. So why do we have to go through so much to get your child in school?” she said.
Butler’s story had a happy ending: Her child got in. But the experience still troubled her.
“That process is a way of eliminating a lot of people,” she said. “There’s a larger segment of individuals who are not like me. But their children deserve the same opportunity as mine.”