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School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp

Einstein Charter Schools circumvented the city’s centralized enrollment system this fall by signing up students on its own, which the Orleans Parish School Board says violates its policies.

That undermines the integrity of OneApp, which is supposed to give children in New Orleans an equal shot of getting into the schools they want, OneApp enrollment director Gabriela Fighetti said.

“The promise of fairness and transparency with the system gets eroded” when schools enroll students who haven’t been assigned through OneApp, she said.

In a letter to the school district, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto said the charter group had simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.

But for the school system, the issue is how those students got those seats.

OneApp was created in 2012 to make the application process for charter schools fairer and easier for schools and families.

Since Hurricane Katrina, nearly every school in New Orleans has been transformed into a charter. They’re run privately, but they’re publicly funded. The schools can operate as long as they meet certain benchmarks, including standardized tests.

Before central enrollment, families had to submit applications for each school. A student could be admitted to several schools, so principals weren’t sure who would show up on the first day. Parents of children with special-education needs complained that they had a hard time finding a school that would take them.

All but three Orleans Parish public schools use the new system. Charter schools that didn’t previously participate are now required to join when they receive a new charter.

Einstein opted in one year before its contract was renewed last summer.

But between Sept. 7 and Oct. 2, Einstein enrolled 26 students at three of its four schools, according to a warning letter issued in early November by Dina Hasiotis, who oversees school performance for the Orleans Parish district.

According to another warning letter issued by EnrollNOLA staff, the same thing happened in the prior school year.

Enrolling students on campus undermines the citywide system, Fighetti said.

“There typically is another school that is expecting that student” because OneApp assigned the student there, she said. Staff at the other school may spend time trying to find the student, she said.

“There also could be other students that would want that school,” she said, “because we think a seat is full that isn’t actually full because the student is attending somewhere else.”

Schools could cherry-pick students when they enroll students on their own.

“When a family comes to a Family Resource Center,” Fighetti said, referring to EnrollNOLA, the office that runs OneApp, “they are seeing all the open seats in the system.” Staff do not discriminate based on a family’s background, income or special-education requirements.

“We can’t know, if schools are enrolling students on-site, if they are being offered that same level of fairness,” she said.

In a letter to the school district, Toranto said the charter network “did not deny students access to any of its schools.”

The non-compliance notice from the school district, she wrote, “has been issued due to accepting students whose parents chose to attend Einstein.”

The school district required Einstein to train staff on enrollment, update its student enrollment system and alert the district to any other instances of on-site enrollment. Toranto provided a letter stating staff had been trained and agreeing to the other two requirements.

If a student is not assigned through the centralized system, she wrote, “he or she does not have a valid assignment and should not be enrolled.”

A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board wouldn’t say whether Einstein had returned to good standing. Nor would Toranto.

“The OPSB does not have a comment on this matter at this time and generally does not comment on disputes while they are ongoing,” Dominique Ellis said in an email in December.

The district is closed this week and Ellis did not respond to a request for any updates.

Einstein and the local school board are engaged in another dispute. The board sued the charter network in November, saying it isn’t providing free transportation as required.

Instead of providing transportation on school buses, Einstein offers public transit vouchers to students who request them.

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About 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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.