NOLA School Superintendent to form task force to look at racial disparities

“When I’m in community meetings and addressing NOLA-PS in various settings, anytime our schools with eligibility comes up there’s always a question about the racial equity piece,” she said. 

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Avis Williams called racial disparities in enrollment at selective charters a “glaring opportunity” and will launch a task force to address the issue, she announced to board members this week. 

Williams presented data on what she called “eligibility schools,” or the handful of New Orleans public schools with some type of eligibility requirement. She identified 10 schools, four with academic requirements and six with a language requirement. One state-run charter school also requires parents attend an open house for students to be eligible to apply.

“When I’m in community meetings and addressing NOLA-PS in various settings, anytime our schools with eligibility comes up there’s always a question about the racial equity piece,” she said. 

New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Avis Williams Credit: Brett Barrouquere / The Lens

Her Tuesday presentation focused on the four schools with academic requirements: Audubon Charter School’s montessori program, Lake Forest Elementary Charter School, Willow School (formerly Lusher Charter School) and Ben Franklin High School.

“With the exception of Lake Forest these schools do have a much lower level of black students compared to other students, particularly Ben Franklin and the Willow School,” Williams said. “This is an opportunity to look at this through an equity lens.”

Application data from the 2022-23 school year for Audubon showed 246 Black students and 147 white students applied. Of those students, 27 Black students, or 11 percent, were accepted, while 25 white students, 17 percent, were accepted. Further, of the applicants, 60 percent of Black applicants were ineligible, compared to 25 percent of white applicants.

At Willow, 94 percent of Black applicants were ineligible, compared with 44 percent of white applicants. The school had more than twice as many Black applicants as white. 

“This is a point of concern for me, the number of students who are ineligible, in particular the number of black students who apply versus the ones who are eligible,” she said.

Franklin had a similar rate of ineligible Black applicants at 92 percent. But unlike the selective elementary schools, Franklin accepts all students who meet their eligibility requirements, spokeswoman Eve Peyton confirmed. The school has continued to expand enrollment

“Any student who meets our eligibility requirements, which include being a resident of Orleans Parish, is admitted,” she said. “We don’t have a wait list or a lottery.”

Williams said she visited Franklin’s campus recently and asked CEO Patrick Wildhalm about applications.

“When students are not eligible what does that typically mean? And he said that usually means they didn’t get enough points (on the admission test),” she said.

“This goes back to the conversation about gifted education … what I know for sure is that a scholar who is identified as gifted in first grade has a different trajectory than a child who is not,” she said. 

Williams said elementary schools throughout the city must do a better job preparing students to ensure they can pass Franklin’s entrance exam. Some board members asked for a further breakdown of the data, including whether students were failing certain portions of the entrance exams and to ensure students weren’t counted twice if they were admitted at one school and not at another. 

The selective admission schools have joined the district’s centralized enrollment lottery in recent years, a requirement of their renewed charter contracts to theoretically increase accessibility for families. Some of the schools used to require parents attend open houses or submit applications in person during the work day and Willow offered priority status to students living in a certain attendance area. 

But one element of the application process — sibling preference — went largely undiscussed at Tuesday’s committee meeting. 

That will continue to perpetuate the racial disparity.

Black and poor students overrepresented in failing schools

Enrollment disparities also show up when comparing the population of economically disadvantaged students. 

“How is it that the majority of our economically disadvantaged students are in low-performing schools?” Williams said. 

She also presented general enrollment statistics by race and school letter grade. The Louisiana Department of Education issues school letter grades in an A through F format each year. Williams said 34 percent of the students in New Orleans’ A-rated schools are black and 44 percent are white, vastly overrepresenting white students compared to the city’s population. At F-rated schools, 76 percent of students are Black while seven (percent) are white.

“Another question I’ve been often asked is why is it a majority of our black students are in low performing schools,” Williams said. 

“This is another glaring opportunity for us to look through an equity lens and truly consider how do we create quality schools in every community.”

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...