In New Orleans, Let's Match Opportunities for All

Here’s a challenge we hear a lot from parents: they don’t have the convenience of living near their employer or in a neighborhood where their child can walk to a high performing school, so the whole family does a lot of commuting. Their days often start at five in the morning, getting one child ready for the six o’clock bus to one school and another ready for a seven o'clock bus to another school across the city—all while getting themselves ready to fight morning traffic to make their eight o'clock shift. With long school and work days, everyone arrives home late and typically exhausted. There’s little time or energy left to do the kinds of things that support students’ success in school, like talking about the day together, supervising homework routines, or even preparing for the next day. Yet, for more affluent families, the narrative differs. Shorter commutes to school and work equal a better quality of life, more time to spend as a family unit, and more rest. It’s a gross tale of disproportionate opportunity costs.

And unfortunately, in New Orleans, those inequities are being further exacerbated—even as high-performing schools add more seats for students—through preferential enrollment policies.

Three of the area’s highest performing schools—Lusher Charter School, Hynes Charter School, and now Kenner Discovery-Health Sciences Academy—each reserve a certain percentage of their seats for families either employed by their partner institution or who live in close proximity to the school campus.

There are some obvious benefits to these policies, of course. They can help the affiliated employers improve employee retention and investment, for one, and they offer students opportunities to explore potential career pathways. They can offer access to shared facilities to expose students to better resources. And because these schools are expanding, they are opening up more seats in strong classrooms—something we need across the region.

But those opportunities come at a cost: many families who need those seats the most aren’t in a position to get them—particularly those reserved for students with neighborhood proximity. If anything, low-income families—many of them African American—will be locked out of these top schools because there will be so few seats left over. In our majority-Black city, the children of Black families are our city’s future leaders. Policies that block them from accessing great schools are putting children at risk, but they’re also putting the future of the city at risk.

We’re already seeing this happen. Lusher Charter School, in partnership with Tulane University, made the decision to reserve seats for university employees and neighboring students back in 2006. Lusher, formerly Alcee Fortier High School, had historically been a proud institution for many African American families, even though it was located in a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood. With new admissions standards, the school demographics came to more closely mirror the neighborhood’s, ushering Black families out and leaving them to fill seats in under-performing schools.

Similarly, this past November, Hynes Charter School announced it would enroll approximately 75 kindergartners in a new school set to open for the 2019-20 school year, thanks to a partnership with the University of New Orleans. The school offered preference to university employees and families within 0.5 miles of the school, which includes the affluent Lakeview and Spanish Fort communities—neighborhoods with the highest concentration of households with incomes over $100k in the region.

And just this past month, Ochsner Hospital partnered with Kenner Discovery to open a new campus where 50 percent of the seats will be reserved for Ochsner employees' children, and another 20 percent reserved for students from the affluent Shrewsbury neighborhood. Gaining a spot at the new campus will set students up for a high-quality school experience right through 12th grade, because students who graduate will have the automatic option of attending the nearby A-rated high school. The same is true for Lusher and Hynes.

Of course, this would be no issue if New Orleans were already saturated with excellent school options in every neighborhood, or if these schools were popping up in low-income areas and offering local students priority. But those are not the circumstances. When “location preference” goes to families already residing in affluent neighborhoods, it rewards the advantages of a strong school—plus the convenience of living near school—to those who are already advantaged.

Here’s a better idea: what if these schools reserved a smaller percentage of seats for the families of their partner institutions—say, 25 percent, rather than 50—and then set aside an equal percentage for low-income students from across the city? Consider it “opportunity matching”: if a school creates special opportunities for some, they should match those with equal opportunities for others. Rather than prioritizing seats for neighborhood families in affluent parts of town, these schools could help level the playing field for students who don’t already have access to a resource-rich community.

We don’t take issue with the local businesses being inspired to improve our communities by building better schools. These kinds of partnerships offer plenty of opportunities. But we want those opportunities to be open to all students.

We’ve got to make this right. The “haves” shouldn’t continue to get a further leg up, at the expense of others. Equity will never prevail under that premise.

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