By Jessica Williams and Michael Patrick Welch, The Lens staff writers |

Working to fulfill a promise made months ago, the Recovery School District is taking over enrollment for each of its 50 charter schools in New Orleans. That means the officials running the independent schools will no longer have sole discretion in determining which students come to their schools.

RSD Superintendent John White said the move to a centralized system is in response to myriad complaints from parents, who said dealing with many individual schools was cumbersome and confusing.

State school board officials approved changes last month that make the centralization possible, and White wants to have a system in place not long after a series of December public hearings to gather further parent input.

Photo courtesy of RSD website

The plan initially was detailed in White’s set of commitments to change the district, released in September. The goal is to make RSD’s central offices a one-stop shop for parents looking to put their kids in RSD charters. The change will be in effect for the school year that begins in August, but the deadline for applications likely will be much sooner.

This will not necessarily affect other public schools in New Orleans, though they could opt in. That includes schools chartered or directly run by the Orleans Parish School Board, as well as those directly chartered by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Those categories account for about 25 percent of the city’s charters.

Parents interested in schools that choose not to participate still will have to research those application processes and deadlines, some of which fall as early as January.

Under the new RSD plan, parents will fill out one application, ranking their top school choices. The district will then, to the best of its ability, match each student with the top choice, district officials say. The district also will control any lottery process for each school. Lotteries are necessary when more students apply to a school than it can accommodate. By combining separate school lotteries into one central lottery and distributing seats equally across the district, the district aims to ensure that each child has a seat in a school.

But the idea of a centralized system of enrollment runs counter, in part, to the idea that each independent charter school is, in fact, independent.

Schools will still share some responsibility in the new enrollment process, including student recruitment and registration. But RSD will take on the brunt of assigning students to schools. White said that while it is unlikely that students and parents will not be assigned one of their initial choices, RSD is still taking input on the plan, and still needs to work out a few kinks with it before it launches early next year.

“We are still engaged in discussions,” White said. “We’ve got four meetings in December to talk to parents in a public venue, and we’ve been engaged for months with the schools and charter management groups.”

The first meeting is scheduled for Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m., according to the RSD website, though the listed location of 2736 S. Carrollton Ave. is the site of Mr. Chill’s barbershop.

The centralized enrollment system was a top request among stakeholders during his community and parent task force meetings, held earlier this year, White said. The plan is aimed to make the selection process easier on parents – and serve as a response to parent complaints that some charters, open enrollment by definition, have cherry-picked students and rejected special needs kids.

“When we say equal choice, we mean equal choice for all kids,” White said.

At a recent McDonogh City Park Academy board meeting, school officials expressed concern that the process may infringe on charter schools’ authority.

“I am not happy they’re taking away our autonomy,” said Carmelite Price, coordinator of school services and enrollment. “Existing students, students’ siblings and neighborhood kids will get priority, and we can still recruit students to fill out applications, but this means no more public lottery. We’ll be told who is accepted. It will be scary not knowing which students we have until the last minute.”

Board president Mary Kay Parker had a more positive view on the change.

“Along with making sure every student is allowed access to these schools and won’t suffer bias,” Parker said, “parents will no longer have to spend time going to each school to find out if they have an opening. They can go to one central location and find out everything the want to know.”

Parker, however, also said, “I do worry we might not get enough students and it will mess with our budget, which would effect our ability to hire special ed teachers and such.”

An official with the KIPP network, which runs nine RSD charters serving 2,500 students, said such anxiety naturally comes with running charters.

“That is something that always happens at charters, no matter who is managing the enrollment,” said Jonathan Bertsch, KIPP’s director of advocacy.

Bertsch was invited by the RSD to serve on a panel of advisers who would help map out how the enrollment transition will take place, and how the shift will be perceived publicly.

The transition committee also includes officials from other charters including Firstline Schools, New Orleans College Prep, Harriet Tubman and New Orleans Math and Science Academy.

Bertsch said a central clearinghouse for school assignments is necessary because of the sheer number of charters.

“As a city with 80 percent charters, this is important. If it goes off without a hitch, it will be a more elegant solution to the sort of chaotic way it has been handled,” he said. “Anything that makes this process easier for parents and family is important. This will guarantee everyone will get a fair shake.

“It’s something I’ve heard families ask for.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...