Our Take

OneApp + Support = An Upgrade for Families at Closing Schools

This winter, almost 800 families at three New Orleans schools were in a tough situation. Their schools were set to close at the end of the academic year. Whether they liked it or not, they would be forced to find another place to send their children for 2018-19. Many of them were deeply frustrated and worried.

Just a few months later, most of them received good news: Their children will be attending much better schools next year. In fact, 94 percent of families that participated in the application process have been awarded seats in a school with a higher state letter grade (A-F) than the school they attend now. Almost two-thirds will have the opportunity to attend a school whose grade is at least two letter grades better.

How did that happen? In part, it is because that’s how the system is designed. Families from closing schools receive priority for open seats at other schools in OneApp, New Orleans’ common application process. This advantage seems only fair, since the three closing schools carried grades of D or F, and families were not being given a choice about changing schools. They deserved to go to the front of the line.

This is very different from what happens with school closures in many other cities, where students are often assigned centrally to new schools based solely on proximity and without their families’ input. Some end up in schools that are performing no better than the closing schools they just left. They may even be next on the list for closure. This is why credible research has concluded that in some cities, school closures do not result in an upgrade for affected families.

It also helped that families from these three schools received high-touch assistance when they completed their applications. It isn’t easy to evaluate dozens of different schools, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Most parents do not follow the nuances of school performance closely – especially when they have not participated in the choice process for several years. Some schools are close to home but do not offer the type of academic program a parent desires, for instance.

Each New Orleans closing school family this year had access to a Navigator – an expert guide provided by our organization to help parents prioritize the schools that would best meet their needs. Navigators do not represent any particular school or network. They are free to give unbiased advice. Their job is to help parents make their own informed decisions.

The level of support provided to families seems to have made a difference. Over 90 percent of families submitted their OneApp application in time for the Main Round deadline on February 23 – the highest rate on record. Most families listed at least four school options on their applications, raising the chances that they would find a match.

In the end, 62 percent of closing school families received a seat in their top choice school. An astounding 87 percent were assigned to a school that was among their top three choices. This is an example of how the priority given to closing school families truly helped – only 67 percent of all OneApp participants was awarded a top-three placement.

The most common school assignment for closing school families was Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School – or “Baby Ben” for short. Baby Ben is a B-rated school that is perennially among the city’s most popular due to its strong performance and diverse student body and faculty. Sixty-one students from closing schools were assigned to Baby Ben.

This is not to say the system is perfect. We do not wish to minimize the legitimate challenges of school closure or to gloss over the fact that not every family in New Orleans, whether at a closing school or not, can get exactly the seat they want. Many questions remain unanswered, like how well schools will adapt to meet the needs of these students, many of whom may be coming in behind their peers. And although giving special consideration to students from closing schools is the right thing to do, it makes the competition for seats in New Orleans’ most in-demand schools all the more fierce in a year when there is already plenty of frustration among parents about the shortage of quality options. That’s a much bigger, more challenging problem to address.

Our overall conclusion, though, is that this is a better way to handle school closures, which are always unfortunate and never easy. New Orleans built systems that anticipated the need to shift students from one school to another, and they placed a high emphasis on treating families in a vulnerable situation as fairly as possible. It’s the “upgrade rule” made real. As a result, hundreds of students who have been in a D- or F-rated school should get access to better instruction at higher quality schools. And that upgrade is something we should all celebrate.