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Confusion swirls as BESE ponders proper size of neighborhood attendance zones

Correction: The description of the admission process at RSD open-enrollment charter schools has been amended to reflect that, if applications exceed capacity, students are chosen by lottery.

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had a rare meeting in New Orleans Wednesday night to ponder rules that allow open-enrollment charter schools to establish neighborhood attendance zones. But the meeting generated more heat than light and no decision was reached on how many seats should be reserved for students from the attendance zone once it is established.

BESE members sat through a presentation by state officials with the Department of Education that explained legislation passed last year. It permits charters to request BESE’s permission to establish attendance zones but does not specify the percentage of school seats that should be reserved for local students, leaving that decision to BESE.

In addition a representative of the state’s Recovery School District, which operates the majority of non-chartered New Orleans schools, presented a slide show that said little about neighborhood zones.

“I feel like you all are asking us to make decisions that we are in the dark about,” said BESE member Linda Johnson, who represents New Orleans.

The bill, if approved, would allow charter schools to petition BESE for permission to reserve a percentage of seats for students from the neighborhood. Current rules forbid neighborhood attendance zones on grounds that they are exclusionary; instead RSD charter schools are required to accept students from anywhere in the city on an “open-enrollment” basis. If applicants exceed capacity, they are chosen by lottery.

Officials with the state Department of Education said the proposed percentage was originally set at half, but that this percentage may go down, depending on input from the community and BESE members. The legislation called for “a guaranteed percentage.”

This legislation comes in response to concern that efforts to maximize parental choice among schools in the charter system create a hardship for students who want to attend an open-enrollment school in their neighborhood that is already filled up. The student group most affected includes those who show up after the school year has already started.

Unlike charter schools, schools run directly by the RSD do not have enrollment caps and are permitted to take extra students in mid-semester.

Some charters run by the Orleans Parish School Board have been permitted to have attendance zones and other requirements that restrict admissions requirements.

The new legislation, which was resisted by some charter school operators, does not mandate that they set up attendance zones but permits them to “opt-in” if they want permission to establish one. Charter schools that elect to participate in the attendance-zone program would define their zone’s borders, subject to BESE approval.

BESE member Louella Givens noted that some charter schools are likely to reject the attendance-zone option because federal funding for charter start-ups forbids attendance zones and other such exclusionary rules. Givens also questioned the legislation’s exclusive focus on charters.

“I’m still foggy on this. I do not understand how we can talk about establishing attendance zones when we are only talking about charter schools. I think we have to start talking about direct-run schools as well,” she said.

Amid the expressions of confusion, BESE member Chas Roemer announced that no final decisions on the neighborhood plan would be made at the meeting.

Comment from the public ran the gamut.

School system gadfly Karran Harper Royal exhorted the BESE board to “make sure that at the end of this school year, we’ve written some kind of policy that gives kids a guaranteed right [to attend school within their neighborhood], and doesn’t give charters the option to volunteer for 30 percent enrollment.”

Janet Dane of Citizens for One Greater New Orleans expressed concern that a move back toward neighborhood schools would lead to inequities because many school buildings have yet to be built:

“We understand that kids want the choice to attend a high-performing school in their neighborhood,” Dane said. “However, we do not believe that New Orleans is at a place for that. There are some neighborhoods that are not back yet,” she said.

Critics of attendance zones see them as a throwback to era when confining students to their neighborhood was a policy that perpetuated segregation. Civil rights advocates turned to busing as a way to break down the doors of the schools from which blacks had been excluded.

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