Researchers with the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans found highly rated, high-demand schools where students who live within a half-mile of the school have priority, are located in zip codes with income levels higher than the city average. (Graphic provided by ERA)

A new priority status that gives New Orleans students living within a half-mile of a school a better shot at getting in when applying through the NOLA Public School district’s centralized application — OneApp — was more likely to benefit white and higher-income kindergarten applicants than students of color and lower income students, authors of a new study found.

“It is kind of a step in the opposite direction in terms of giving kids equal access to schools,” researcher Lindsay Weixler said in a Monday interview. 

Weixler is an Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which studies the city’s unique charter school system. She, along with Senior Research Analyst Alica Gerry and Research Analyst Cathy Balfe found that a 2018 change in the district’s admissions process — creating the “half-mile priority” — was more likely to help white and higher income students gain admission in highly rated, high-demand schools.

OneApp is an algorithm-based enrollment system created by the state-run Recovery School District in 2011. At the time, the majority of the city’s charter schools were under RSD oversight. That changed in 2018 when they were moved back into local control under the Orleans Parish School Board and what is now known as the NOLA Public Schools district. The district now administers OneApp.

OneApp is designed to give all students a chance to enroll at any school in the city regardless of where they live. But in 2018, responding to families who wanted to enroll their children in schools near their homes, the school district added the half-mile priority. Weixler said that has created an advantage for white and more affluent families who are more likely to live near the city’s highest-demand schools.

“The original design of the system was intended to break that link of where you live and the schools you have access to,” Weixler said. “But it is recreating that link between where you live and where you’re able to go to school because it gives such an advantage.”

The study also revealed that higher-income applicants were more likely to live within a half-mile of high-demand schools — which the authors defined as schools that fill all of their seats in the first round of OneApp. Those schools are all located in zip codes with income levels above the city average. 

“We were surprised that all nine of these high-demand schools are in higher income zip codes,” Balfe said, though admitting they suspected their findings would track in that direction. 

“Those are the only schools where those priority categories matter. Because at the other schools, if they don’t fill all their seats, anyone can get into the school,” Weixler said.

Highly rated schools have long had more applicants than seats, making the application process in New Orleans stressful for families and in some cases leading them to move to access the “half-mile priority.”

The study examined roughly 2,100 students who applied for kindergarten in the 2019-2020 school year. As originally published on Tuesday, the report said that about 120 of those students got into a high-demand school through the half-mile priority. However, that number was an error, the group later told The Lens.

On Wednesday, the day after publication, the authors issued a correction. Weixler clarified only 68 students were admitted through the half-mile priority to high-demand schools — not 121. The researchers accidentally included 53 students who had that priority but were ultimately admitted to a school they listed higher on the OneApp. Therefore the half-mile priority did not play a role in their admittance.

Weixler said that though only a small number of students benefitted, “For those kids it is a big advantage.”

That advantage can have lasting benefits, including for younger siblings. Because of other priority statuses built into the system, families are often competing for a very small number of open slots in the city’s most popular schools. Many students are granted kindergarten admission through the district’s “sibling priority,” which grants admission to younger siblings of current students before others. There is no cap on the number of students that can enroll though this status.

Priority statuses are applied in order of the unique lottery number generated by OneApp for each student. The “half-mile priority” can fill 25 percent of seats at any given school while a broader geographic district priority can fill up to 50 percent of seats. 

The researchers looked at nine high-demand schools in the city which they said they couldn’t name due to their internal policy.* However, a map is included in the report.

Overall, they found that 14.9 percent of kindergarten applicants from high-income families had a half-mile priority for a high-demand school, compared to 8.7 percent for applicants from low-income families. That means higher-income applicants were 71 percent more likely to live within a half-mile of a high-demand school, they said. Lower income students were more likely to live within a half-mile of a low-demand school.

The researchers found a similar advantage for white students compared to students of color.

“One of the things that we see in other analyses in how parents are ranking their schools is we see a really strong preference for A and B schools,” Weixler said, referring to state letter grades based on academic performance. “Parents are willing to travel to get to those higher rated schools.”

In a statement, NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district was grateful for the organization’s research. 

“In 2018 the board acted to add a limited priority for families who live within a half-mile of most of our schools. This priority seeks to balance providing access to those who live closest to a school of their choice, while also ensuring access for those who do not live near a school of their choice. Our priorities do not provide a guarantee to any family,” she wrote.

Asked specifically if the district was considering altering the policy, Alfonzo did not directly address the question. 

“NOLA-PS is constantly striving for equity of access and excellence in our schools,” she wrote. “We will continue that work with our community to find ways to improve our process for all our students.”

Weixler isn’t sure there’s a fix that can be worked into a distance-based policy. 

“I think as geographically spread out as New Orleans is and the way that schools tend to cluster — I don’t think you could get to a reasonable radius and give every student a priority. It partly depends on what the goal is,” she said. 

“If the goal is to give applicants a strong priority at a school that is very close to them you could give it to whatever school is closest to them no matter how far it happens to be,” she said.

“If the goal is to create equitable access to all schools it’s tough to create a geographic priority to (the high-demand schools) because of where the schools are located. A lot of them are in the Mid-City, Lakeview and Gentilly area.”

This story was updated to reflect a correction issued by the researchers the day after it was published.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Weixler as saying the half-mile preference is a “small” advantage for some students. In addition, an earlier version of this article said a contract precluded ERA from naming the schools in this report. ERA’s internal policies prevent them from naming the schools.

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...