The vast majority of students leaving four failing schools closed by the Recovery School District are headed to other substandard schools next year.

About 77 percent of students transferring from Abramson Elementary and 72 percent of those transferring from James Weldon Johnson Elementary — both given the letter grade F by the state — are headed to schools graded F or T. For students leaving the smaller Murray Henderson Elementary, it’s about 47 percent.

T-rated schools are failing schools that have been taken over by a new charter operator; the state gives them two years to improve before they assign a standard letter grade.

Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School students, who were given preference in the city’s unified school enrollment process, fare much better: Just 16 percent are headed to F or T schools.

The figures show that the RSD’s special efforts to attend to Mays families – they got first preference in this year’s OneApp – appear to have worked.

But for students leaving the RSD’s three other closing schools, the figures show how the state-run entity still has trouble providing academically acceptable options to parents nearly eight years after it took over all of the city’s below-average schools — which included most of them — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Though RSD schools have improved significantly in the past several years, most of them are rated F or D by the state. The Orleans Parish School Board’s 18 schools score higher, although many of them are selective admissions and were academically strong schools before the storm.

The figures provided by the RSD also show a challenge facing the school-choice movement. About half of families at these failing schools didn’t apply anywhere in OneApp’s first round, which ended in March.

That’s one reason that many students leaving closing schools have been assigned to RSD’s three default schools. Two of those defaults are rated F and one is a D.

If those families apply to other schools in the second or third round, the RSD will try to match them with their choices, Executive Director of Enrollment Gabriela Fighetti said. But as schools fill, the pickings become slim.

The Lens asked the RSD for information on where students from each closing school have been assigned. The district would not provide this data, saying that student privacy could be compromised in cases in which just a few students left one school for another.

But the RSD did provide documents that grouped destination schools by their state grades. So while it doesn’t say how many students went to Eleanor McMain Secondary School, for example, it does show how many students went to B schools, which includes McMain.

The RSD has provided similar information in the past, however. For a Lens story on how the RSD has complied with the No Child Left Behind law, the district provided information showing exactly how many students transferred into each school last year. The Lens has asked for legal justification for that denial.

Destination schools better, but not by much

The RSD says students are mostly moving to schools with higher scores.

“In general, 72 percent of students who moved from one school to another school moved from lower to higher,” Fighetti said. The data shows that when making school choices, “families, among many things, are taking SPS [school performance scores] into account … which is extraordinary.”

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“We have a hard time trying to explain to people that, yes, we have a school that’s consecutively failing, and that’s when the RSD comes into play. … But we encourage people to really look at the growth numbers versus the letter grades.” — Zoey Reed, Recovery School District spokeswoman[/module]That figure includes families who chose schools during the first round of OneApp and those who were assigned to a school because they didn’t fill out applications or didn’t get one of their eight choices, Fighetti said.

The 72 percent figure, however, obscures the fact that in many cases, the destination school is marginally better than the ones these students are leaving.

For example, 68 percent of former Johnson students will attend the nearby Benjamin Banneker Elementary, the default for students who didn’t get their choice or didn’t fill out an application. Banneker’s 74.7 school performance score (out of 200) trumps Johnson’s 70.9, but both are F schools.

Henderson parents have slightly better academic options, mainly because Paul Habans Elementary, where they were guaranteed seats, is a D school, 14.7 points higher than Henderson’s score. About half of Henderson’s former students were assigned to nearby Habans.

Still, RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed urged families to look at the RSD’s overall progress.

“We have a hard time trying to explain to people that, yes, we have a school that’s consecutively failing, and that’s when the RSD comes into play,” she said. “But we encourage people to really look at the growth numbers versus the letter grades.”

In 2008, about 80 percent of schools had an SPS below 75, or failing by state standards, she said. “We’re now at about 50 percent.” Four months down the road, when school performance scores are released again, “we’re confident that the 50 percent mark is going to decrease even more dramatically.”

Schaumburg will be run by ReNEW Schools charter network next year; Crescent City Schools will run Habans. RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard has said that he is optimistic about the future of failing schools being handed over to charter operators.

Students assigned in main round of OneAppAssigned to “C” or better schools“D” schools (including default)“F” schools (including default)“T” schools (failing but under new management)No grade (private or not graded yet)
Abramson 279 27 38173 28 13
Henderson79fewer than 10511311fewer than 5

Many parents didn’t exercise choice

In some cases, notably at Johnson and Abramson, had families elected to apply to schools using the OneApp process, their kids might be headed to better schools.

Students at failing schools had to rank their top eight choices on OneApp, the city’s uniform application. Those who didn’t apply anywhere were automatically assigned to the nearby school with guaranteed seats, which generally aren’t much better than the ones those students just left.

That’s what happened to many students at Johnson and Abramson:

  • 59 percent of Johnson students didn’t fill out a OneApp application, so they’re headed to the F-rated Banneker.

  • 33 percent of Abramson students didn’t fill out an application, so they’ll go to Schaumburg, another F school.

Because Mays’ charter was revoked and wasn’t taken over by another operator, those students got preferential treatment in the application process.*

Getting parents to exercise their choices can be a challenge, said Ethan Ashley, Louisiana director of community outreach for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a school-choice advocacy group. In situations like these, communication is critical, he said.

“I think if you tell any parent, ‘This OneApp application will allow your child to get into a school to perform on a higher level … most parents would be like, ‘Sign me up for that,’” Ashley said.

OneApp lists the school performance score and grade of each participating school. The applications don’t say that students leaving closed schools will be automatically assigned to the default school if they didn’t apply anywhere. But, Fighetti said, that information was communicated at a series of parent meetings at each closing school, held in January.

Mays students not given first-choice at OPSB schools

Overall, Mays students were assigned to better schools than their counterparts at other failing schools, with 37 percent headed to C or better schools. That includes Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, the most popular elementary school in OneApp, as well as Akili Academy and Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology.

Although RSD officials said in February that Mays students would be given first preference at every school in the city, that didn’t happen at the five schools run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board.

Stan Smith, interim superintendent of schools for Orleans Parish, said the board decided not to give Mays students preference because non-chartered OPSB schools expected most of their students to return.

“We knew that we were going to have a high return rate,” he said. However, he said OPSB is “working to try to craft solutions” for those students.

The board has asked Smith to look into the feasibility of keeping Mays open for next year, possibly as an OPSB charter. And board member Cynthia Cade recently spoke on behalf of Mays families before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Families who applied for the second round of the OneApp enrollment process, which ended May 24, will find out in the next two weeks which schools they have been assigned to, Fighetti said.

A list of participating schools accompanied the second round application.

Of the 17 schools listed with grades C or better, nine had seats open in only one or two grades. Five others had no vacancies.

*Correction: This story originally misstated why Mays got preferential treatment in OneApp and why its students weren’t assigned to a default school. Its students got preference in OneApp because its charter was revoked and it wasn’t taken over by another operator. (June 12, 2013)

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...