For the first time since New Orleans charter schools started using a common enrollment system, the Recovery School District is tracking how many students transfer schools in the middle of the year due to special-education needs.

Such transfers aren’t new, enrollment director Gaby Fighetti said. Before, they were handled under a catch-all category in which principals at each school agreed to the transfer. As a result, there was no way to know exactly how many students moved due to special-education needs.

Public schools are required to serve any student who walks through their doors — including those with severe disabilities, who generally cost more to educate because they require special attention.

The new category of transfer should help the RSD better track why students move schools.

“We think it’s important to understand how and when families want to move their children,” Fighetti said.

Critics have said charter schools cherry-pick students, and a third of principals surveyed in a local study admitted they tried to enroll high achievers.

In 2010, 10 families filed a lawsuit against the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education. They claimed students with disabilities were subject to enrollment discrimination and they didn’t receive legally required services. The landmark settlement put the district under a consent decree that requires close monitoring of the city’s charter schools.

The consent decree hasn’t fixed everything. In January, the state sanctioned ReNEW Schools for failing to adhere to special-education law.

The Recovery School District created OneApp, the citywide enrollment system, in 2012 to give students equal access to schools and eliminate enrollment bias. The next year, it began to sanction schools for enrollment discrimination.

Transfers between most schools also are handled through OneApp. Parents can ask to change schools because of medical reasons, changes in childcare, the student’s safety, and now, special-education needs.

Until now, special-education transfers were done under the “principal to principal” category, a catch-all that doesn’t provide much information about why a student moved.

New Orleans’ charter system is relatively new. Many of the schools have been around for less than 10 years, and they may not have experience educating students with certain special needs. As schools and charter networks mature, Fighetti said, some have developed programs to serve certain disabilities.

The new transfer category does not in any way change the requirement that schools must serve all students, Fighetti said.

“A school does not say to a parent, ‘We can’t serve you; you have to go somewhere else,’” she said. “A school and a parent might together decide to transfer this child to a new site.”

If parents want to transfer their student, they file a request with the school. “A school has to have a conversation with a parent about that request,” Fighetti said.

That may lead to a solution at the school. Otherwise, the request is passed on to the RSD for consideration, Fighetti said.

Through this process, Fighetti said, the district hopes to “strike a balance” between what parents  want and what the school provides.

“If mobility has to happen, let’s make sure it’s happening in cases where there’s really no other option,” Fighetti said. “Because mobility is hard.”

This fall, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans released a study showing school closures and charter takeovers benefited students when they ended up in a better school and the move took place with minimal disruption.

Doug Harris, the head of the organization, said in an email he hasn’t researched midyear transfers. “But we would certainly expect mid-year transfers to be more disruptive. At the beginning of the year everyone is adjusting, learning the rules, and making friends. In the middle of the year, everyone — students and teachers alike — has to re-adjust.”

Last year, 447 students asked to change schools mid-year; about 61 percent were approved. Childcare and safety were the most common reasons.

In the “principal to principal” category, more than 90 percent of the 127 requests were approved last year.

Overall, Fighetti said, transfers are more likely to be approved near the beginning of the school year.

“It doesn’t get completely cut off. There are instances of health and safety,” she said. “As you get closer and closer to the end of the school year, I think we do apply a little more strict scrutiny.”

Just one special-education transfer has been requested so far. It was under review last week. Fighetti said that wasn’t surprising because it’s a new category.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...