I have received my share of calls regarding this year’s 1st round OneApp decisions. I must admit that these calls made me both sad and hopeful. See, for years, we functioned in a neighborhood school model, where students attended the school located in their neighborhood. Traditionally, in urban districts, this model has packed poor kids from poor neighborhoods into low performing schools. Those who were able to afford to live in more affluent neighborhoods would be able to send their kids to the better schools. And for a handful of parents, falsifying their address on their child’s school application in order to get them into a high demand school was the answer. I must be clear; I am not against neighborhood schools. I am against forcing poor children from poor neighborhoods into poor performing schools without additional resources to counteract the needs of the students and their families. A 2007 Connecticut study found that poor children who attended economically mixed prekindergarten classes progressed from well below the national average in crucial language skills to just above it during the course of the school year, while those in low-income-only classes remained below the norm.
Now, because of the OneApp system, by-in-large parents with means no longer have the benefit of simply living in an affluent neighborhood in order to get their child in the best public school in New Orleans. Nor can they use their name, title or influence to lobby to get their children into the better schools. We now use a computerized system that takes into account a few preferences (neighborhood/zip code, sibling matches, etc.) as well as your ranked choices in order to select a school to determine where a child will attend. For many, this system seems unfair. For each parent, it can be burdensome to fill out the application and to research schools. I understand that it is very stressful to do all of this work without a guarantee that you will get into the school you want. However, the system in its self is not inherently wrong or broken, for the system is controlled by preferences that are set up by those who manage it. Right now, the State (Recovery School District) manages the OneApp system. The Orleans Parish School Board has never managed the OneApp system. We will have our first opportunity in the 2018-2019 school year to manage the OneApp system. As a District, we are currently conducting a transportation and enrollment study to determine ways to improve the current enrollment system.
Now, let me quickly dispel how the problem that we currently are trying to solve is not a “OneApp” problem. It is also not simply a need for more quality seats; but rather, a need for more support and resources for our children to be “school ready” when they start kindergarten. Traditionally, we have only a handful of public schools that many parents (native and non-native) will send their children. These schools are overwhelmingly the A and B ranked schools and are often times have some type of selective criteria to gain acceptance. The reason that parents choose these schools is large because of their academic ranking, diversity (socio-economic status and race), and often times selectivity. However, as a state system, we largely determine quality by one major metric, student performance. If we are determining school quality by student performance, this means that we must start our evaluation of this problem by looking squarely at our students.
The overwhelming majority of our students who attend public schools are low-income students and a large majority of these students start school behind. This in itself does not mean that students from low-income areas are less capable or unable to learn. This does mean that students from low-income backgrounds are subjected to a host of environmental stressors and fewer resources to become school ready; and, are therefore behind when they start school. A large majority of our best teachers are in high-needs, high-poverty schools. On average, these teachers are able to grow our students 1.5-grade levels. This type of growth is amazing and is also necessary because a majority of our students begin school behind, due to the lack of resources and supports. The teachers are not the sole factor of quality, even though they play a huge role in the development of a child; however, the resources, care, and development provided to our students in their early years (0-5) is the overwhelmingly most important deciding factor and predictor for student outcomes and success.
Therefore, we should not be calling to simply change OneApp. In fact, if we went back to neighborhood schools, we would still have a population of students who are not prepared for school; and, a middle and upper-middle-class population seeking schools homogeneous to their social status’ out of fear that their children will not be provided the education needed to thrive. I understand that part of the perks of working hard and making a good salary is so that you can position yourself to provide your child with the best upbringing possible, including a quality school education. But, this reality will never happen for everyone if we do not work together to call for systemic reform. This is why I am asking our community leaders and “well-to-do” families to stop simply calling out the problems with OneApp. We need your voices to call for increased resources for our low-income and high-needs students; and universal pre-k. We should be calling for a root cause change, not a simple band-aid that fixes the needs of our most privileged New Orleanians. I am hopeful that when everyone- rich and poor, young and old, and black and white- is seeking change we can make our system work well for every child in New Orleans.