Anika Watson and her son Kaleb and daughter Kaliyah outside McDonogh City Park Academy where the children attend school on Thursday, March 14, 2013. Watson learned days after the start of the school year that her kids' new school was an F. The district offered her children a list of schools to which they could transfer, but even those options were lackluster. Credit: ELIOT KAMENITZ / photographer/The Advocate

A day after her children entered the halls of their fifth public school in five years, New Orleans artist and parent Anika Watson received two letters detailing something that came as no surprise: two of her children had just begun a new school year in one of the city’s 32 failing public schools.

The state-run Recovery School District informed Watson that children attending McDonogh City Park Academy, an F-rated school, were eligible to transfer to a higher-performing school.

That’s a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Public School Choice program: local school districts must allow students in academically unacceptable schools to transfer to higher performing, non-failing schools in the district — if there’s room.

For Kaleb, Watson’s third-grader, the transfer options were slim: four D-rated schools, one newly authorized charter that hasn’t been graded yet, and another school with a lower academic performance score than City Park Academy.

The 10 transfer options RSD offered her fifth-grader, Kaliyah, included one B-rated school, seven D-rated schools, one new charter school with no assigned letter grade and two other schools that, like City Park Academy, have been labeled “academically unacceptable” by the state.

The notices from RSD didn’t disclose the transfer schools’ letter grades, but when Watson looked at her options, she said, “I knew immediately that most of them were bad.”

Watson’s experience points to a key failure in New Orleans’ lauded landscape of choice-based educational reform: In a city where parental options abound, how many of the choices are reputable ones?

In the RSD, it seems, not enough.

More than seven years into the New Orleans choice experiment, documents and interviews reveal the schools are so academically anemic that the RSD fell short in its attempts to comply with federal policy requiring school districts to offer higher quality alternatives to students in failing schools.

In August, the Recovery School District sent out a second round of letters offering transfer options to students at failing schools. Of the 25 schools, nine were rated D.RSD also offered “T” schools, which meant that they had scored low enough to be ranked F but had been taken over the previous year by a new charter operator. Three of the schools also were rated F the previous year, but they were handed over to new charter operators this year. (Click on the graphic to see the full list of schools that were offered as transfer options in July and in August.)

“If every student in a failing school wanted to transfer,” said Gabriela Fighetti, RSD’s executive director of enrollment, “we would not be able to guarantee them a slot.”

Dozens of public records reviewed by The Lens show RSD officials last summer grossly underestimated the number of failing schools it oversees. One week, City Park Academy was offered as a destination for countless students eligible for transfer through the federal choice program. The next, it was identified as a failing school required to offer alternatives to its own students.

And when officials sorted that out, the options they provided to families still included schools labeled “academically unacceptable” by the state.

“Fundamentally, the letter of the law is that if they’re in a failing school, then parents ought to be given the option of a better school for their child,” said Adam Emerson, director of the Program on Parental Choice for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., education think tank. “If parents are getting options that aren’t doing any better than what their child is currently in right now, that’s a problem.”

Shifting accountability information

On July 18, the Recovery School District notified parents of students at six New Orleans schools that their children were enrolled at a failing school and were eligible for transfer through the No Child Left Behind Public School Choice Program.

Almost every parent who received a letter was given at least one F school from which to choose.

Six days later, the state Department of Education released data that showed RSD had drastically underestimated how many of its schools were failing.

Among the 180 Louisiana schools on the state’s list of 2012-13 “academically unacceptable schools” were 32 New Orleans public schools, 31 of which are either directly run or overseen by the Recovery School District.

Fighetti said the district initiated the choice program ahead of the state’s directive so students could enroll in their respective schools by the start of the new school year.

“Our schools understandably want to begin Day 1 with their kids, and we wanted it as close to the start of school as possible,” she said. “We worked hard with the state, but some of our predictions were wrong. The [school letter] grades are released quite late. It’s tough to balance that.”

RSD “immediately” sent out a second set of letters after receiving the list of anticipated failing schools from the state on July 24, Fighetti said. Those letters, according to copies obtained by The Lens, are dated Aug. 6 – the first day of school for RSD-run schools. (The state usually doesn’t release its final list of school grades until later in the fall.)

Students at Cohen High School, an F school that serves 11th and 12th grades, were unable to participate in the choice program, RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed said, because the district “had no seats in non-F schools.”

In this second round of letters, none of the schools given as transfer options bore a school grade of F. But it appears that’s due largely to a technicality in the state’s grading system.

The lists most parents received included at least one of four schools that have a “T” rating instead. The threshold for a “T” grade is the same as an F — below 75 on a 200 point scale — but those schools given “turnaround” status have recently been taken over by new charter management.

Moreover, the district did not offer transfer options to students enrolled at the nine “T” schools deemed “academically unacceptable” by the state. That contradicted the district’s assertion in a July 11 press release that its federal school choice program would be based on the list of schools labeled “academically unacceptable.”

“‘T’ schools are viable options for families because they are being transformed by high-quality charter organizations,” Reed said.

About 1 out of 10 students took RSD up on the offer to transfer to a new school. Most of them ended up at D schools. A few ended up at schools that had been graded F but were taken over by new management this school year. (Click on the chart to see the breakdown of transfer schools.)

In all, the New Orleans Recovery School District sent letters to 7,831 students at 21 schools in 2012, according to figures provided by RSD. Of those, 739 students — about 9 percent — transferred to another school through the public school choice program.

Fighetti maintained that none of the 700-plus students enrolled in another failing school.

Records The Lens requested from RSD show that 30 students who requested a transfer under the No Child Left Behind choice program ended up at Gentilly Terrace Elementary, a T-rated school with a performance score of 74.9, just below the threshold of what the state considers academically acceptable.

The records also show that about 40 percent of them chose a D school, 22 percent a B school and 16 percent a C school. About 10 percent went with schools that were either not graded in 2012 or else had a T. And almost 12 percent — 86 students — transferred to Cohen College Prep, G.W. Carver Collegiate or G.W. Carver Prep, schools that have F grades but are under new management.

“If you look at the progress, we are very proud of the gains we’ve made,” Fighetti said. “In the future, we hope to get to that point where a student who wants out of a failing school can have the option to do so. We are not there yet.” 

When is a ‘choice’ a good one?

The district’s mishandling of the federal school choice program is notably significant in a choice-based system, said longtime public education advocate Karran Harper Royal, because “it’s an opportunity for students in the worst schools to get into better schools.”

“How could they really be serious about choice and offer this to a parent?” said Royal, who’s been following RSD’s implementation of federal school choice law for the past several years.

Heralded nationwide as an effective model for education reform, the New Orleans school choice experiment relies on the conviction that parents are able to find the best schools for their children — “when they are able to weigh their options one against the other,” said Dr. Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research.

“Go back to free-market and choice theory. It’s based on the notion that parents will always make good decisions when they have full knowledge and information about the product and the school,” he said.

According to Emerson, the district’s failure to list school letter grades next to the choice transfer options defies the most basic elements of the school choice movement.

“Even if they don’t meet the [academic] requirements, parents should be told everything about their options,” Emerson said. “Parents need to be able to make an informed decision, and I wouldn’t want to find out too late in the process that I’m leaving a bad school for another bad school.”

Reed said the district agrees it’s critical to give parents such data. Asked about the absence of that information in the choice letters for 2012-13, Reed said that this year the RSD did include the letter grades in its school application materials for the fall.

Making informed decisions

After sorting through the options for her own kids last fall, Watson decided to keep her children at City Park Academy.

That decision didn’t come without some frustration. She’d selected City Park after doing considerable homework — attending a school choice fair, completing a district-wide application process and interviewing the school’s principal.

By the time the August letters came alerting her to a serious problem — a problem so grave that the RSD wanted to offer her a way out — school had started.

Kaleb and Kaliyah had their uniforms, their teacher assignments, their books.

“Of course I was insulted,” Watson said. “Not only did I receive letters, I got a phone call from another school telling me my kids’ school was failing and there were openings at this school.”

In the end, Watson chose to keep her kids in the F school for 2012-13 for the same reason she said she chose it at the outset: because she believed in the school’s principal and her vision for her kids.

RSD’s options gave her little comfort.

“I don’t think choice indicates quality,” she said.

Asked what she will do if City Park Academy gets another F this year, Watson said she’s hopeful that won’t happen. As long as the current administration sticks around, she said, she will, too.

Heather Miller

Heather Miller is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Lens' Charter School Reporting Corps. She is a former staff writer for The Independent in Lafayette, and is now based in New Orleans.