What We're Learning / Published Jun 14

New Report Suggests Navigation Support Helps Families in Closing Schools Get Better Outcomes

School closures are always hard, but new research points to some strategies that can make it easier on families.

EdNavigator has a featured role in a new research snapshot published by the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH), housed at Tulane University. In the report, lead researcher Jon Valant examines outcomes for students who attended three New Orleans public schools that closed at the end of the 2017-18 academic year, forcing families to find and enroll in new schools for their children.

It’s a quick read and well worth your time. Here, I’ll add a few thoughts about what the findings mean for our work and how they are relevant to education policy well beyond New Orleans.

Let me begin by stating that school closures are awful. They disrupt the lives of families and sap vitality from communities. Closures almost never affect affluent students and almost always affect vulnerable ones. And in many cases, those already-vulnerable students are re-assigned to low-performing schools where their academic fortunes decline rather than improve.

School closures are also unavoidable. Occasionally, due to issues such as low enrollment, mismanagement, misconduct, or budget woes, there is no other reasonable option because a school lacks the resources or public trust to continue doing its job. Closures are an unfortunate last resort.

The new research suggests that when closures must occur, there are ways to make them easier on families—or not. In New Orleans, families at closing schools had access to three advantages that have not typically been characteristic of closure processes elsewhere:

  • The option of applying for seats in schools citywide;
  • Priority access to any available seats in those schools; and
  • Personalized support in navigating the school choice process from EdNavigator.

“The new research suggests that when school closures must occur, there are ways to make them easier on families—or not.”

Families could apply to schools across New Orleans because of the city’s unique educational landscape, where all public schools operate autonomously and there is a single lottery process through which enrollment assignments are made. There is no such thing as a default assignment due to one’s address or attendance zone; instead, parents must choose. Accordingly, New Orleans avoids the pattern—common elsewhere—of central offices dictating new placements for students from closing schools regardless of family interest in those schools or the quality of instruction they provide.

New Orleans took the additional step of giving families at closing schools the first pick of any school openings. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this policy. If two students applied for a single opening at the same school and one student had an older sibling already attending the school, while the other had no family connection to the school but was being displaced from a closing school, the displaced student would be awarded the seat. Due to this policy, families in closing schools in New Orleans had a meaningful chance of upgrading to a better school compared to the one they were leaving.

Families could only maximize their advantage in the enrollment process by filing their applications during the “main round” of the placement process. This is where EdNavigator came into the picture. As we described in our 2019 report The Upgrade Rule, every family with a child attending a school that closed in 2018 had multiple months of access to our Navigators and their counsel on choosing a new school.

Data in the new research snapshot show that families that received this support submitted applications that differed noticeably from comparison groups. For instance, EdNavigator-supported families listed more schools, which increased the likelihood that they would receive a main round placement, which is when the most desirable seats were up for grabs. They also listed schools that were higher performing and more often listed schools that were included on a recommended list mailed to each home by EdNavigator. In short, there is reason to believe that families acted on the advice their Navigators offered.

Even better, students found stability in their new schools. Upon receiving their initial assignments during the main round of the process, they were less likely than students in comparison groups to change schools again—in the short- or medium-term. Academically, their performance in reading and math improved during their first year at their new school. While the improvement was modest, any improvement at all is something of a victory because students typically lose ground when changing schools.

Does this mean navigation “works”? No—that would be an overstatement. This wasn’t a true experiment where we can conclude anything about causality. Nor does it mean closures are painless and should be used more frequently. But the findings are encouraging. Families who received EdNavigator’s support pursued, obtained, and stayed in higher performing seats than families who had to navigate the process on their own.

Why do these findings matter? Because nationally, we could be facing unprecedented school closures in years to come, driven by lower birth rates and changes in enrollment during the pandemic. For many districts, it will not be a question of whether to close schools, but how many school must close.

Leaders in shrinking districts should be planning—now—for how they can leverage lessons from New Orleans to protect families from the worse consequences.

  • What options are available, for instance, to ensure families have a voice in choosing their child’s next school?
  • Will families be guaranteed a seat in a school with a thriving academic program? Or could they be defaulted to a school on the verge of being the next to close?
  • Will families have access to independent, unbiased assistance in exercising their options?

At EdNavigator, we are very proud of these results. Credit goes to our team in New Orleans that worked so hard to be reach every family, even as one of our Navigators was going through the school enrollment process for her own daughter, who attended a closing school that year.

We are also grateful for the leadership of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO). As soon as closures were announced NSNO recognized the need for family support and found the financial resources to make it happen. Likewise, the team at NOLA Public Schools and Enroll NOLA collaborated with us every step of the way to ensure we had current data and resources. Finally, the leaders of the schools that closed put the future success of their students first. As one of them commented, early in the process: “I don’t care if the students go to another school in my network. I just want them to go to a good school.”

Well said.