Attendance zones were abolished after Hurricane Katrina, creating a wide open door to parental school choice. This article examines the effect of choice on how far students are traveling to school and some of the reasons why parents "go the distance."
“New research from Tulane University complicates that matter. It confirms that students do take longer trips. If you map home addresses against school addresses, the average New Orleans student lived 3.4 miles away from school in 2011-12. That’s 1.5 miles farther than in 2004-05 — probably 2 miles by road, Harris said.”
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Public school choice has been a defining change in New Orleans education since Hurricane Katrina. As a result, students are now traveling farther to get to school.
That's the common-sense notion. But is it accurate? New research from Tulane University complicates that matter. It confirms that students do take longer trips. If you map home addresses against school addresses, the average New Orleans student lived 3.4 miles away from school in 2011-12. That's 1.5 miles farther than in 2004-05 -- probably 2 miles by road, Harris said.
Before the storm, 35 percent of students lived within half a mile of their school. In 2011-12, the percentage of students living within that radius had dropped to 10 percent. Only one student in five went to the school closest to their home. The figures take into account the fact that there are fewer school campuses now.
But the research also shows that school choice was pervasive even before the 2005 storm. In 2004, over half the city's students did not go to their neighborhood school.
"I don't think it's a simple story," said professor Doug Harris, head of the university's new Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.
A land of choice
Today, there are no default assignments for New Orleans students -- no "neighborhood schools." Families apply for spots in whichever schools they desire - most use the centralized OneApp system - and are matched with open seats. Most elementary schools give some geographic preference, but from larger zones than before the storm: one stretches from the 7th Ward to the West End, for instance.
School choice proponents and the Brookings Institution, which has put New Orleans' Recovery School District and Orleans Parish schools first and third in its school choice rankings, say this means a child's zip code doesn't determine their educational destiny, and it encourages quality by allowing families to vote with their feet. But some parents decry the long distances children travel, sometimes requiring that they gather at gas stations for predawn pickups.
The idea of the "neighborhood school" has new resonance now, when so much has changed in New Orleans. No longer just the school down the street, it means a school that represents and serves the people around it.
Sarah T. Reed High in eastern New Orleans is one of many institutions that has drawn that kind of support. "This is where I live and this is where I want to send my child," said Cristi Wijngaarde, rallying in December outside the school, which is being closed in June. "She's still not home. And it's night time."
Harris' findings jibe with maps created by Robert Edgecombe, an urban planner with GCR Inc., a company that consults on enrollment to both the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board.
The picture didn't change much for Edna Karr, which was a magnet high school before Katrina. It drew students from the eastern and western ends of New Orleans in both 2004 and 2012.
But for the former Crossman Elementary School in Carrollton, school choice has radically reshaped its map. In 2004 nearly all Crossman's students came from its Carrollton, Hollygrove and Mid-City. It had only a handful of students from Algiers, eastern New Orleans, Gentilly or even Uptown or Central City, and none at all from Lakeview.
Today, the school is Esperanza Charter, which has a focus on English-language learners. Its map stretches to almost every neighborhood in the city. A couple dozen students come from eastern New Orleans and about the same from Algiers.
The percentage of students taking truly epic journeys -- over 10 miles as the crow flies -- remains small at 3 percent. But that's a 2-point increase from 2004, according to both Edgecombe and Harris' figures.
The all-choice system has resulted in higher transportation costs and longer bus rides, Edgecombe said, and prompted debate: "It is a trade-off and like any trade-off, people have different opinions about the implications."
Both poor and better-off families named the same top three factors in their choice of schools: academics, safety/discipline and quality of teachers. Distance from home ranked eighth of 11 factors for very low-income families.
"For most parents, that's a bad thing -- they don't want to do it," Harris said of putting their kids on long bus rides. "But they're willing to do it to get what they need."
He said the results also show the system needs to go beyond academics when considering which factors to nurture in schools.
Picking a school before Katrina
Before the storm, there was a thick notebook in the New Orleans Public Schools office listing the default school for every home in the city -- its neighborhood school, said Rose Drill-Peterson, then an area director for the school system.
But even before "school choice" became a catchphrase, New Orleans had plenty of it.
With enrollment on a 30-year decline and some neighborhoods aging, "You could probably go to almost any school," Drill-Peterson said. Ordinary schools allowed students to get a permit if they had open spots. And "the reality on the ground level" was you "didn't necessarily have to go to the permit office," she said.
Furthermore, many high schools and some magnet or specialized elementaries didn't have zones, including Warren Easton High, Ben Franklin Elementary, Audubon and Lake Forest Montessori. There was even -- shades of OneApp -- a somewhat centralized application process for selective programs.
Some principals instituted special endeavors to draw students to their half-empty buildings. For instance, "Gentilly Terrace went to an arts focus," Drill-Peterson said. "Anybody in the whole city could apply for the Gentilly Terrace arts-focus (program) and it was first-come, first-serve."
However, the school system didn't run yellow buses all across the city. Students attending anything other than their neighborhood school were given tickets to ride Regional Transit Authority city buses.
The schools that remained heavily neighborhood-based often had parent centers or community centers offering job services and GED classes, or were linked to public housing developments.
Drill-Peterson didn't remember school choice being a source of controversy at the time. Plus, she said, "You were guaranteed a spot in a zoned school."
One Algiers principal's experience
Edna Karr became a selective-admission high school in 1990 and immediately started drawing students from all over the city.
Now, even more students start their day on the other side of the Crescent City Connection -- 30 percent, longtime Karr principal John Hiser said. After Katrina, the school dropped entrance and retention requirements, and neighborhood preference.
Hiser, a lifelong Algiers resident, likes the mix of students.
"I believe very strongly in the concept of cross-pollination -- that kids learn better when they go to school with kids from other neighborhoods," he said. He thought families should choose high schools based on their programs, not their location.
Almost 60 middle schools sent children to Karr this school year. "Trying to mold them all into a Karr Cougar is a very difficult task," Hiser said. "But if you believe in choice then the school needs to be open."
Besides, Karr needs those East Bank students. Even if every Algiers eighth-grader came to Karr, Hiser said the school would still have empty seats -- and there are three other high schools on his side of the river.
But choice has brought two major problems: the budget and community reaction. Getting all those kids to Karr is very expensive -- over $700,000. That's money that can't go into teacher salaries or trombones for the marching band.
And Algiers residents get frustrated if they can't get into Karr. Hiser often hears parents say they'd rather send their child down the street -- but they end up on the East Bank.
"Choice is choice until the seats are filled," he said.
That's becoming especially touchy as the school enters OneApp this year, potentially increasing the number of applicants. OneApp randomly assigns students to spots based on their preference, and there are no wait lists: If you're out, you're out.
Responding to those pressures, the school has instituted preferential admission to Algiers teens, Hiser said.
"I think it will provide some level of comfort without turning it into, what would you call it, a neighborhood school," he said. "Preferences are one thing but absolutes are another."
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