The Upgrade Rule: How Schools and Districts Can Make School Closures Work Better for Families

School closures hurt. While they are relatively uncommon nationwide, they are sometimes unavoidable—and they’re always painful, especially for the students and families who are displaced and who rarely see any educational benefit as a result. For them, closures are mostly profound disruption followed by deep disappointment. The fact that closures may contribute to the health of the school system as a whole over many years offers little consolation.

What if there were a better way to handle closures, one that ensured that students would come out of the process with a better educational experience—or at least gave them a decent shot at one? What if students and families in closing schools weren’t left to fend for themselves, but got the guidance they needed to understand their school options, make informed decisions, and navigate the re-enrollment process smoothly?

These are the questions we explore in our newest publication, The Upgrade Rule: How Schools and Districts Can Make School Closures Work Better for Families.

The “Upgrade Rule” refers to a simple maxim: You shouldn’t close a school until you can offer families something better—an “upgrade.” We’ve been exploring how exactly to do that over the last two years in New Orleans, where we partnered with Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB, now known as NOLA Public Schools) to provide support to families in seven schools that were closed between 2017 and 2019. In coordination with OPSB, EnrollNOLA, and the schools themselves, we focused on ensuring families knew exactly what they needed to do, understood their options, and always had someone knowledgeable they could turn to for advice and guidance.

Our goal was straightforward: make the closure process less traumatic for families and help them get an upgrade. We offered parents in closing schools clear information about the school options that were available to them, personal support in making decisions about where they wanted to apply, and guidance in getting through the application processes. We also conducted proactive outreach to families as New Orleans’ school enrollment deadline approached to ensure that all families submitted their applications in the main round.

In the end, these efforts made a difference. While seats in the city’s highest performing schools remained scarce, 93 percent of students from closing schools with D-F letter grades landed in a new school that was at least one letter grade better, and 66 percent gained seats in a school two letter grades better.

In the paper, we dig into what strategies worked well—at the district level, as well as with individual families—in the effort to give all families an upgrade. There’s still plenty to learn about how to make the Upgrade Rule a reality, but here’s what we’re recommending based on our experience in New Orleans:

  • Give families from closed schools preferential treatment in the enrollment process. In New Orleans, families were given “priority status” in the centralized enrollment process, meaning students from closed schools went to the front of the line for open seats in the schools of their choice.
  • Operate on a timeline that maximizes opportunities for families. Families need time to process the closure on an emotional level, but they also need time to explore and take advantage of all opportunities, including those in religious or private schools—so districts need to take into account the admissions timelines for all local institutions.
  • Invest substantial resources in the best possible communication to families. With the inherent confusion and stress that goes along with a school closure, families need access to clear, useful information that helps them understand what’s happening, what their options are, and what they need to do (and when).
  • Bring support directly to families instead of waiting for them to find it. Families can’t be expected to ask for help—help needs to come to them, and it can’t come in a one-size-fits-all package.

While The Upgrade Rule focuses on school closures in New Orleans, we think the big lessons are applicable anywhere and anytime schools must be closed. For families like the nearly 1,700 we supported in New Orleans, the stakes couldn’t be higher.