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Supporting Families from Closing Schools: Q&A with Navigator Ruben Johnson

At EdNavigator, our focus is providing long-term, personalized education support to families through our employer or community partners. Our Navigators visit parents at their place of work to help them interpret school records, get extra support for their children, enhance their children’s education at home, and even pursue their own educational goals as adults. This year, though, we also provided more focused school choice support to the families of nearly 1,000 students from three New Orleans schools slated for closure: Mahalia Jackson elementary, Sylvanie Williams College Prep, and ReNEW McDonogh City Park Academy. We sat down with Navigator Ruben Johnson, who was deeply involved, to ask him about it. In a future post, we’ll go into more detail about the results and what we learned from this work.

EdNavigator (ED): Let’s cut to the chase: How did this go?

Ruben Johnson (RJ): “We went into this project hoping to help families in a difficult situation find new schools they’d be happy with, and to make the transition a little easier and less stressful overall. While the OneApp results won’t come out until later this spring, we know we were successful in reaching families and making sure they participated in the process. Across the three closing schools, 90 percent of all families we were supporting filed an application in the main round, listing an average of about 4 schools per application. That’s a big deal, because submitting an application in the main round is their best chance to get their children into one of their preferred schools. That’s a better chance at a good school for hundreds of students.”

ED: How did you get there? What did the support look like?

RJ: “We started by mailing packets of information to every family. Each packet contained their student’s OneApp ID number, instructions for OneApp, frequently asked questions, and a list of schools recommended by EdNavigator. That way, even if someone didn’t reach out to us for help, we knew they would have all the basic information they needed to apply on their own. But what we really wanted was for them to contact us and have a conversation.”

ED: Why focus on having that conversation?

RJ: “Our work is really built on trust and personal relationships. When you sit down with a parent in person or talk to them on the phone, that’s when you can really start to understand what they want for their kids and which schools might be a good fit—because the list is going to be different for every family. You can learn a lot in only a few minutes. It also gives us a chance to verify that they know how to use OneApp and understand the application requirements for schools that don’t participate in OneApp, or that have special admissions requirements. We tried to have a one-on-one conversation with as many families as we could.”

ED: How did that work? Where did families meet you?

RJ: “Parents are really busy. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to reach us. So we held regular office hours at each school and tried to be there during other events as well. But I met with parents in coffee shops and parking lots and all over. We also sent flyers home with students and reached out by phone, email and text message.”

ED: How did parents react to the support?

RJ: “Most parents were ecstatic to have guidance from a Navigator who could talk to them about different schools – not just the schools’ grades but things like their educational philosophy, culture, extracurricular offerings, and support for children with special needs. We often were able to highlight schools that they had not considered. In other cases, we were able to help parents narrow down a list that at first seemed overwhelming. All of this meant that parents were able to spend less time researching information and more time deciding which schools were the best fit for their children.”

ED: What sorts of factors did families consider when selecting their school preferences?

RJ: “Transportation was a big issue for many families. They don’t want to send their kids to schools that are far out of the way. They also consider factors such as their familiarity with the school or network, teacher retention, school culture, and whether the school focuses on particular content areas like science or arts. For Spanish-speaking families, good language support is important as well. The thought process gets more complicated quickly for parents with multiple children, because they have to consider which schools siblings attend or how to find schools that can meet the needs of multiple children at once.

ED: Did parents have ideas for making the process smoother?

RJ: “Helping them with their applications showed us a few areas for improvement. For example, families who have several children sometimes have to duplicate a lot of information in their applications; simplifying that would help. For parents who are not comfortable with technology, access to paper applications was especially important. Some families also had a hard time getting to the family resource centers to complete the app in person due to their work schedules; it would be great if those centers offered extended hours during the weeks right before the deadline.”