I’m a former policy specialist for OneApp, and I’ll get straight to the point: The team at NOLA Public Schools who operate OneApp are brainy do-gooders with hearts of gold. I stand by them regardless of where my four-year-old goes to school next fall.
Those who remember might agree that 2011 was not “six years after the storm” so much as it was a hundred year-nightmare in the blink of an eye. The sign on Israel M. Augustine Middle School across from the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court still announced the long passed first day of school, August 7, 2005. The zany Brad Pitt houses across the Industrial Canal were still boosting the spirits of people from out of town who thought they could really make it right. Brief disclaimer: I’m a 2007 transplant from the West Coast. I, too, thought those houses were a healing salve. In 2011, we were still basking in that overtime field goal against the Minnesota Vikings that sent our Saints to the Super Bowl.
In 2011, I returned to education after a short detour. One of the projects I undertook was working in enrollment for a charter school network. It was the wild west. Parents had the freedom to hedge their bets and place their students on several rosters, even if it meant not showing up on several first days of school. School leaders had the freedom to decide, from moment to moment, if seats were available – even if that meant speculating on the potential of the student seeking the seat. Everyone involved had the liberty to make those choices, and there are parents who know that their children were harmed by this chaos. These weren’t private schools. Kids were supposed to be guaranteed a seat.
Waiting For Superman defined the zeitgeist in education back then, making way for the first string of brainy do-gooders with hearts of gold to enter. Building on enrollment lotteries in other cities, a small team of problem-solvers turned their attention to fixing this gaping hole in fairness. Regardless of their personal beliefs, they believed that the free-market charter “experiment” needed some help getting off the ground. So, they packed up their world-class diplomacy and their Nobel-prize winning algorithms and moved into the Recovery School District building on Poland Avenue.
My first encounter with them came in the autumn of that year. The do-gooders were on a tight timeline and needed historical rosters for schools that had no history. Schools had new names. Banners had been plastered right over the tops of the old names that had been etched above the schools’ front doors. Just like that, alma maters were eviscerated, and alumni were unmoored. That same type of evisceration had been done to the majority Black teaching staff that worked in the public school system before the storm.
I found some of the records I needed for the project in soggy storage closets, but most of the records I needed were never found. It took a lot of advanced functions in Excel, but a partly accurate, centralized roster was finally created. I imagined that the policy part of the job was harder, but they had the knowledge to get it done.
Years later, I would see how tough it must have been in the rooms where those policy negotiations happened. School leaders wanted to deliver on the promises they made in their job interviews; and parents demanded schools where their children could thrive, not schools affected by the problems of institutional racism, police violence, and poverty. The charter school system had gone all-in on the free market and had a lot to prove.
The OneApp founders braided together these imperatives, which were often at odds. They grandfathered in some policies seen as either protections or obstacles, depending on one’s demographic. The goal was to ease the district into “autonomy with boundaries.” The founders did their homework. They knew about choice fatigue and the raises-all-boats doctrine. They knew parents were bound to test the system for the most obvious reasons possible: their kids. They knew local education leaders were bound to get resistance from a district trying to rebrand. They knew private charter boards were bound to appeal to funders, even where they had to cross boundaries to do so. The OneApp founders weren’t perfect, but they were the last vanguard of selflessness. They didn’t need to be liked. They weren’t then and still aren’t now.
Loud voices boomed on all sides. School leaders had become accustomed to being heard. And parent advocates spoke with the authority of being fundamentally right albeit fundamentally unrealistic.
Then came the incident of July 9, 2014, when the crowd for summer enrollment stretched around the block of First Pilgrim Church on Marais Street. That year, the school was the site of the Recovery School District’s summer parent center. Parents began arriving at 4:30 a.m. that morning. More than 800 showed up before noon. But there weren’t enough people to serve them. Parents waited for hours, reminiscing about old times when getting a seat in a good school came down to being in the right place at the right time. News crews descended upon the sweaty crowd to capture the anger that created a rare spirit of unity. The enrollment process was a disaster. The OneApp team was horrified. I was there.
Undeterred, they reopened quickly in a shiny new space with shiny new crowd control. The Lake Area New Technology Early College High School campus was huge and spacious and set the tone for the next several years. But up until the pandemic, summer enrollment continued to be held in ghastly, cold conditions – a spiritual tribute to that hot day when the brainy do-gooders with hearts of gold had made a big mistake.
I acknowledge that my view of OneApp is colored. I was a true believer from the start. I liked the do-gooders. I liked how they kept ratcheting down on the shenanigans. I liked citing their authority when I said no to recruitment strategies that seemed suspicious to me.
So, I was thrilled when I landed a job in OneApp operations in 2018. I published a Schools Guide. I placed the final printed copy onto a stack of guides I had worn out during previous years when I served as school staff. I remained thrilled through the changing of the guard in 2019 and a global crisis in 2020. I was heartened by improvements to the service in the family centers; major upgrades to the functionality of the application portal; and invisible but revolutionary advances in the way the algorithm runs. It is tested by geniuses who are building on the original software. The integrity of the lottery is rock solid. But this is a machine. Faulty input causes faulty output, creating horror stories and system mistakes. That’s how the machine works.
That brings us here. On November 7, the Main Round of OneApp 2023-2024 opened to the world. I did not work on this one. I left the district 2021 to get a hold of myself, but I know the drill. Parents everywhere are cursing the open house requirements and the sibling verification process. There are questions about how it really works. The consensus is that it’s best to have low expectations.
Parents are vying for seats at the best public schools, no matter their income. They are either sifting through C and D schools for the best backup or scooting around to private school open houses, cursing the fact that the deposits are always due before OneApp results come out. The private schools know what they are doing.
Everyone knows this is a city where generational poverty and generational wealth breathe the same humid air. No one finger can point at the problem of failing schools. But what I do know that some do not is this: there is a solution. It lives within the OneApp rankings and a community of parents who have had enough. The answer is unified support of schools whose leaders have excellent ideas. If parents bring the resources, the schools will blossom. Bricolage proves it can be done.
There it is. There’s the answer. You’re welcome!
It is complicated and tedious to deal with OneApp. Taken alone, it looks, convincingly, like the whole damn problem. But that’s wrong. Last year, 94% of families applying for Kindergarten and 9th grade got one of the choices they applied for, and 90% got one of their top three.
OneApp is a tool. It’s not paralyzed by nuance, and it’s powerful enough to change the landscape.
Brooke Wanamaker is a long-time educator and freelance writer. She earned the 2016 University of New Orleans Seraphia Leyda Award award for Best Master’s Thesis. She lives in Central City with her husband and son.