By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Recovery School District head John White needs to rethink his strategy for helping students get into higher-performing schools, critics of his enrollment plan said Tuesday.

Top education officials and members of the public critiqued White’s new centralized enrollment plan at a rare New Orleans gathering of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday night.

The plan will have parents fill out just one application for all of the direct-run and charter schools associated with the district. It is intended to bring clarity to what many parents have called a confusing enrollment process. The RSD also has pledged to match parents with their top school choices, which White has said will ensure a more equitable process for all involved – including special needs students and others who have been turned away from their top choices in the past.

Members of the public and school officials prepare for Tuesday night’s meeting in New Orleans of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Photo by Jessica Williams

But some say that the plan doesn’t consider the possibility that parents  will want schools with high test scores. Because such schools are in short supply, they will be the fastest filled. After Hurricane Katrina, the lowest-performing schools were absorbed into, or chartered by, the RSD. Few have posted strong performances, as measured by the state accountability system.

State school board member Louella Givens said as much Tuesday.

“If there are no vacancies in the higher performing schools…what is my choice?” she asked White.

White responded that the plan, by design, gives preference to students from lower-performing schools. But Givens still stuck with her statement, saying that parents with kids at lower-performing schools will especially want to put their kids in a high-performing school.

Attorney Tracie Washington said the same in her comment to the board, noting that the spots to higher-performing schools will be even more limited because students already at those schools will be given preference to return, which White later confirmed.

“I don’t disagree with you. If anything, that to me lends greater urgency to the idea that we need to make greater change in our schools,” White said to Washington.

Other board members had more positive points to make about the plan.

“It’s not going to be perfect, certainly some parents will end up with schools that weren’t their first choice,” board member Chas Roemer said. But he did say that it’s better than the previous alternative, which was more random and had less structure.

Board member Linda Johnson also had good things to say about the plan, highlighting the fact that it gives preference to neighborhood students. But she also said that the new process needed to make a way for parents to fill out the application and submit it online, and that it needed to make sure pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students received preference to their chosen schools.

When Washington continued to press the point of the lack of choice for lower-performing students, Roemer, who was running the meeting, told her “we could go through hypotheticals all night long” and that she needed to wrap up her comments. Washington said that this was not a hypothetical situation, but rather a scenario that is bound to happen. She later asked him not to raise his voice to her, and not to insult or attack her.

When explaining the mechanics of the plan, White also hinted that, in future years, he’d like for the Orleans Parish School Board to be part of the district’s centralized enrollment, citing the board and the RSD’s past working relationships on the master plan. It’s unclear if the School Board will acquiesce to that – RSD’s invitation for the board to participate in a unified enrollment system may be seen by some groups as a ploy to rid the elected board of some of its power.

Regardless of the plan’s perceived shortcomings, its implementation isn’t far off – the unified application will be released Feb. 6, with March 31 being the application deadline. Parents and students will find out their assignments the week of May 1.

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...