Navigating the system: New Orleans
Looking for a school in New Orleans? Let us help with the inside scoop.
Learn more on what to look for when touring schools in these videos:
Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Hank Pellissier
When you drive into New Orleans, signs welcome you to, "America's Most Interesting City." This boast is validated by French Creole architecture, spicy Cajun cuisine, wildly diverse culture, complex history, jazz music, Mardi Gras, recent calamity, and even, arguably, the USA's most idiosyncratic, innovative school district. Proceed with caution, however. Keeping your child afloat in New Orleans's scholastic pond requires diligent research, a willingness to commute across the city, and perhaps significant luck.
New Orleans has been in a population free-fall for a half-century — from 627,525 in 1960 to 343,829 today — aided by a mass exodus (30%) after Hurricane Katrina drowned the metropolis in 2005. Even before Katrina, the shrinking tax base - plus sloppy, corrupt district bureaucracy by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and competition from 200 affordable-with-decent-quality parochial schools — had already submerged the floundering district into the one of the nation’s deepest academic abysses. In 2000, only 12 of the delta city's 100+ schools were categorized by a Vanderbilt University study as "reasonably good." Katrina accelerated the drowning process by damaging more than 100 school buildings. After the typhoon subsided, the state transferred 102 of the city's public schools to an emergency intervention system titled "The Recovery School District (RSD)," operated by the Louisiana Department of Education.
Resuscitation efforts are evidently succeeding now, aided by a decentralization strategy that has empowered school principals, opened up city-wide registration, and launched dozens of charter schools. Today, New Orleans is the only school in the USA where more than 50% of students attend charter schools, with the quasi-independent institutes markedly outperforming the older, traditional entities. The state's RSD now controls 23 traditional and 49 charters, while the city's OPSB manages a mere four traditional and 12 charters. A recent poll of 600 New Orleans parents reported that 82% of parents with kids at charters graded those schools with an "A" or "B," whereas only 48% of "non-charter" parents gave their schools the same grades. Citywide, the district has massively improved in the last six years, from a 56.9 school performance score to a 70.6 2010 score. Some 85% of parents also said they were able to enroll their kids in a school that they wanted, and 84% said it "was easy."
How simple is enrollment in "The Big Easy"? All you have to do is go to either the RSD or OPSB web site, and print out applications for every school you're interested in. Fill out the "Common Application" for the dozens of schools the Recovery School District has commandeered, but fill out the "Student Application" for the 16 that NOPS is still allowed to administer. Remember that they need to be submitted rather early (December 17 in 2010), charters use the same form as district schools, you're not limited by any neighborhood boundary, supporting materials are required with each application, and many top-rated charters also require separate testing. If there's room in a school, your child gets in automatically; if demand exceeds capacity, a lottery system is utilized. OPSB's phone number is 504-304-5674 and their address is 2520 General DeGaulle Drive, Suite 5055. RSD's contact info is 504-373-6200 at 1641 Poland Avenue.
Terina Jones is a mother who has successfully shuttled her kids into many of the very best New Orleans options - a combination of district, charter, and private schools. Her son Roderick (now 16 years old) attended James Lewis Elementary for grades K-1, "but they didn't have enough students so they closed it," she reports. He was subsequently enrolled at Ben Franklin Elementary, an excellent institution with a GreatSchools "9" rating. When he reached Grade 4, Terina transferred him, via a lucky lottery draw, into Lusher Charter Elementary, "one of the better schools," she reports, very competitive." (GS rated "10") Roderick remained there until 7th grade, when he was enrolled at Isidore Newman, an "excellent private school," that is famed as the alma mater of NFL quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning.
Roderick didn't keep his grades up though, and his mother decided, "I'm not going to pay for a private school if he's going to get C's." She enrolled him for 9th grade at Ben Franklin High School, "the best high school in New Orleans and one of the best in the USA." (GreatSchools gives it a"10" and US News & World Report ranked it #16 nationally). His admission at Ben Franklin was attained via a "matrix system" that combined his GPA and standardized test scores. Roderick's academic performance continued to sputter, though; overwhelmed by the school's rigorous standards, he only survived for one year. For his 10th grade, Terina enrolled him at Warren Easton, "another charter, not as competitive as Ben Franklin but still a good school." (GS 7) But still, he wasn't really happy here, so Terina opened up her wallet and sent him back to Isidore Newman for his 11th grade. "He's happy there," she admits. "Maybe I never should have taken him out."
Terina's daughter, Tierra, age 12, has had a far less circuitous academic journey. For kindergarten, she took some simple tests at Audubon Charter Elementary, and, once again, the Jones family got lucky in their lottery draw. Audubon (GS rating 9) offers two options: French immersion, or a Montessori program. Today, Tierra is fluent en francais. When she graduates - Audubon is a K-8 - Terina plans to enroll her at, "a new charter, International High School," where she can continue to enhance her second language skills.
Although Ms. Jones never enrolled her children in any of the city's Catholic schools, she acknowledges that a stellar education can be attained at numerous parochial such as, Dominican, Mount Carmel, Cabrini, St. Mary's Academy. Isidore Newman, the PK-12 established in 1903, is the only secular school GreatSchools notes in this heavily-Catholic city. Do urbanites commute their kids to superior schools outside the city limits? No, quite the opposite, says Terina. Ben Franklin HS is so top-notch, "students come from far, far away to go there."
Terina's children tested successfully, and she invariably got a favorable lottery draw, but it doesn't take voodoo to win in this irrepressible city where the current motto on the OPSB website is, "Yet Still We Rise." Stay focused on enrolling your family in the top schools and you too can “keep up with the Joneses.”