CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, Patrick Dobard, wrote the following op-ed for nola.com | The Times-Picayune, published May 11, 2018.
We face a sobering reality: access to education in this country is unequal. This isn’t fair, and in New Orleans, we commit to fighting it each day. It can and will be different in our city. Families shouldn’t have to live in certain neighborhoods to have access to a high quality school. We need to level the playing field — no matter where you live, you have the same right to an excellent education for your child.
When a seat opens up at nearly any public school in New Orleans, every interested family has the same chance to send their child to that school. All families use the same process — the OneApp. This year, more families used the OneApp than ever — nearly 17,000 submitted main round applications.
To many families, a school’s performance or letter grade is more important than where it’s located. So when a great school opens up enrollment to the entire city, there is likely to be more demand for seats than there are spots available.
This year, three highly-rated schools participated in OneApp for the first time. In previous years, they had separate applications, so entering the OneApp made them more accessible for all. While 75 percent of students citywide were matched to a school of their choice, at these three schools, fewer than 32 percent of the applicants were matched. One school had more than 1,400 applicants for 100 seats — a 7 percent match rate.
The problem here is not the OneApp itself. The real need is for more high quality schools. If 1,400 students are vying for 100 seats at a given school, that means we need more seats — our children’s futures are not a game of musical chairs. At New Schools for New Orleans, we are working with the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) to grow the number of excellent schools that families can choose from.
We work toward a day when there are enough high-quality schools that every family gets their first choice. Until that day, the OneApp needs to work smoothly for those who don’t get their top pick. Most families received one of their top three school selections this year, and of those who listed four options, 90 percent received one of their choices. But we know not every family received the results they hoped for; many have understandably voiced frustration.
Understanding how all families experience OneApp is critical to maintaining a fair, transparent and trustworthy experience. So, in early March, before the release of the first round of school placements, we worked with an impartial third party to survey New Orleans’ public school families.
One thousand families, reflecting the demographics of our schools, participated in the survey. They shared some powerful perspectives.
Families overwhelmingly believed the process was fair and easy to use. Eighty-three percent found it understandable and 78 percent found it helpful. Roughly three quarters of respondents said the OneApp felt fair. We are committed to working with OPSB to make sure the OneApp becomes even more user-friendly. The process itself should not be a barrier to entry.
We found that quality matters more than proximity: 95 percent of families agreed or strongly agreed that sending their child to a high-quality school was the most important factor in their decision-making process. Fifty-nine percent said sending their child to a school close to home was the most important.
We asked respondents if they felt education in New Orleans was moving in the right direction. Roughly 40 percent felt it was — more than double the percentage that felt it was moving in the wrong direction (just 16 percent). Another 40 percent of respondents believed things are mixed. This is important information. We want all families to feel our city’s schools are moving in the right direction, and we know we aren’t there yet. Across the city, our families, teachers, school leaders, nonprofits and the district itself are working to make education in our city high quality across the board.
We aren’t done listening and learning. Over the next two months, 15 representative families that used the OneApp this year will participate in a more in-depth, in-person interview. We will share insights from those conversations this summer.
We hope these perspectives help OPSB and others better understand what families prioritize in choosing schools and how they experience the OneApp process. OneApp has made enrollment smoother, but the school system itself now needs to improve. The message from families is loud and clear: we have some excellent schools in New Orleans, but we need more.
Patrick Dobard is CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. He is the former superintendent for the Recovery School District in New Orleans.