Harriet Tubman Charter School, once in failure, is now lauded for both equity and academic gains. Credit: Julie Lause

I was proud that, as the most recent school performance scores were released,  the state honored Harriet Tubman Charter School for both “equity” in its admissions practices and for achieving “top gains” in its academic performance.

The twin designations mean that Tubman students of all ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and special-need status are making strong academic gains at the same rate. The designations were especially meaningful to me, as principal, because Tubman, alone among this year’s crop of honorees, is both a formerly failing school and one with an open-enrollment or come-one-come-all admissions policy.

And yet, newspaper columnist Jarvis DeBerry saw fit to criticize Tubman as one of the equity honorees “being rewarded for gatekeeping.” DeBerry’s columns are often worth reading, but on this occasion his criticism reveals a misunderstanding of a much larger issue that should be the focus of district-wide discussion and debate, a debate rooted in hard facts.

I agree that exclusionary enrollment practices in any school that is designated open-enrollment blunt the meaning of the “equity” honor and become a source of confusion to parents. These exclusionary practices make the term “open-enrollment” meaningless, and they aren’t fair because they give preference to the middle class. In our district, “open-enrollment” should be easily defined, but it’s not.

I believe there are exclusionary practices in the district, but DeBerry’s placement of Harriet Tubman in that category is wrong.  First, let’s take a closer look at Tubman: To characterize the school as seeking to exclude kids whose backgrounds make them harder to educate is simply not true.

The reason Tubman is on both the “equity” and “top gains” lists is the hard work of our kids and our staff, not because we exclude.

At Tubman, 97 percent of our kids are economically disadvantaged, 95 percent are non-white, and 20 percent qualify for special education services. We were an early adopter of the OneApp enrollment process, and, without exception, we embrace open-enrollment both conceptually and in practice.

Where DeBerry goes wrong is in his conclusion that our practice of giving  preference to our pre-k students seeking admission to our kindergarten is exclusionary.

Three facts are worth bearing in mind:

One is that every New Orleans public school that offers pre-k gives preference to those students when it comes to kindergarten admissions; it’s a district-wide practice. Why single out Tubman?

Another is that there are more than twice as many spots in Tubman’s kindergarten as in our pre-k, so 60 more kids in addition to Tubman’s pre-k students have access each year.

Of course enrollment at every school is limited by the sheer number of students it has the capacity to admit and educate, but even here Tubman is notably flexible. We have open seats in most grades going into the final round of OneApp in June, which means that every student, including late applicants, has an excellent chance of getting in. And we continue backfilling throughout the year to meet the needs of as many families as possible.

Third, the de facto impact of following the district’s kindergarten admissions policy is that it gives preference not to middle-class applicants but to the 50 families in poverty in Tubman’s pre-k program.

The reason Tubman is on both the “equity” and “top gains” lists is the hard work of our kids and our staff, not because we exclude. That said, I do believe we should have a district-wide conversation about equity; let’s just make sure it’s rooted in real data.

Fact: There are exclusionary practices in some schools that are called “open-enrollment.” Some of these are decades-old practices, some stem from a special curriculum—for example, immersion in a language other than English or those offering a particular vocational bent, and some are exclusionary for the purpose of exclusion. I believe we should engage in a conversation about enrollment and equity in order to determine which of these practices enhance the goal of school choice and variety, which support a robust portfolio of schools, and which need to be amended to provide equal access to all.

Here are just a few of those practices (Note: I am leaving out the selective schools from this discussion and focusing only on schools which are labeled “open-enrollment” but have practices that result in selectivity.)

  • Many middle-class families have their child evaluated as “gifted” to gain entry to specially designated pre-k seats, followed by automatic entry to kindergarten.
  • There are several schools that offer seats to people who can pay for pre-k, and then automatically gain entry to kindergarten the following year. While this is clearly exclusionary, it needs to be seen as a practice that offsets the financial loss that schools take on in a state that still doesn’t fully fund pre-k. The result is that middle-class families who can pay gain access to reserved seats in pre-K, and then automatic entry into kindergarten in some of the most coveted schools.
  • Given the preference accorded siblings of students already enrolled, admission to some very in-demand schools is virtually impossible if you’re not an enrolled student’s sibling.
  • There’s one school that gives preference to people in a particular zip code, which just happens to be a middle-class zip code.
  • There is one school that reserves a number of seats for children of Tulane University employees, and another school proposing such a preference for children of UNO employees.
  • Fluency in a foreign language is requirement for upper grades at some immersion schools.
  • In some Montessori schools, preference is given to those who attended Montessori pre-schools, which charge tuition, thereby excluding families living in poverty.
  • There’s the new school board policy that gives preference to families within a half mile of the school. For schools in middle-class neighborhoods, this acts as a preference for the middle class.

Whether de facto or by design, all these practices are exclusionary because they give middle-class applicants an advantage gaining admission to some of our most coveted schools.

They are not the norm, however. The vast majority of public schools in the city are truly open-enrollment and have no barriers to entry. These schools are the former Recovery School District (RSD) schools that have just recently been returned to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).

Post-Katrina, the move to charter schools brought school choice to our city. Now, a child isn’t forced to attend a failing school based solely on their neighborhood, but has an equal chance to gain admission to the school of their choice. Students are not guaranteed admission, but have an equal chance. This is an important aspect of fairness that was missing from our district before.

Without specifics, critics who seek to end charter independence and return every school to direct OPSB control are able to sow discontent and distrust in our unique, decentralized district.

Biased admissions policies betray that goal and provide an easy line of attack for people inclined out of ignorance or political persuasion to deny the extraordinary academic improvements New Orleans has achieved through a 13-year school reform effort heavily reliant on charters.

The exclusionary policies that persist are primarily associated with the most sought-after 15 schools in the city. Gone are the most egregious exclusionary practices the middle class used to enjoy for the most in-demand schools, but in their place are new workarounds that I believe are putting our project to improve schools in jeopardy. I write more about the history of New Orleans schools here and a possible way to move forward here.

I believe that to meet the demands of every family, a great school district will have a variety of schools, including those mentioned above that offer language immersion or have a vocational orientation. And I also agree with DeBerry that exclusionary practices, even if not by design, make a mockery of awards for academic gains and equity. I agree with DeBerry’s premise that everyone should have an equal chance to get into a truly open-enrollment school.

Let’s get really specific about which schools are using practices that, by virtue of their unique school type or longstanding tradition, exclude or preference certain students over others. I’d be in favor of the district — or the nonprofit Orleans Parish Education Network (OPEN) or, for that matter, DeBerry’s Nola.com —  creating a chart listing schools and policies that are exceptions to genuine open-enrollment. Such a resource would give parents and guardians clearer information, and the good work of our entire district wouldn’t be thrown into doubt.

We should be having these conversations openly and with a solutions-oriented approach. Without specifics, critics who seek to end charter independence and return every school to direct OPSB control are able to sow discontent and distrust in our unique, decentralized district. Without specifics, we jeopardize the reforms that have brought our city astonishingly strong results over the past 13 years, including increased equity in school admissions, more unique and sought-after charter schools, more choice for parents, and a decrease in corruption and theft. Our district’s grade went from an F to a C, largely because of the work done in truly open-enrollment schools.

All of our kids deserve a fact-based approach to looking at critical issues such as equity. It’s not enough to throw out random names of schools and call into question the fairness of those schools and an entire district when more localized exclusionary practices go unchallenged. Let’s look at the facts so we can dig in and, together, solve problems for our kids.

Julie Lause is principal at Harriet Tubman Charter School and co-founder of Crescent City Schools, a nonprofit charter-management organization. She has worked in the school system in New Orleans since 1995.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.