Orleans Parish School Board expands geographic priority for admission to public elementary, middle schools

The Orleans Parish School Board voted Thursday night to tweak the geographic priority component of OneApp, the lottery system used to assign seats in most of the city’s public schools, following years of complaints from parents that children have been unable to attend schools close to their homes.

Now, more students living within a half-mile of some, though not all, elementary and middle schools will have a better shot of getting into schools in their neighborhoods.

The changes will be implemented in November, in time for the upcoming OneApp process, the computerized system used to assign seats based on families’ choices and other priorities.

Under state law, half of the seats at schools must be available to students citywide, regardless of where they live. The basic goal of the system is to give families citywide a chance of getting kids into highly rated schools, not simply the closest school.

Under the new policy change, 25 percent of all available seats at schools offering a geographic priority will be reserved for students living within a half-mile of the school. Another 25 percent will go to students living in the same ZIP code.

Until now, most elementary and middle school students participating in OneApp got some kind of geographic priority, but it was based only on their ZIP code, a much larger area than a single neighborhood.

The geographic priority does not apply to most high schools, and other priorities, like a preference for admitting siblings of children already in a school, may also trump the geographic one.

Many parents have long protested OneApp, and some community members echoed the criticism before the board unanimously passed the measure Thursday.

This year, the “match rate” for OneApp was the lowest in seven years. With increased demand for seats in the schools, only 67 percent of families received their first, second or third school choice this year.

No School Board members commented on the item during Thursday’s meeting, but several community members said the local board is not doing enough to ensure there are enough high-quality seats to go around.

Among the critics was Lona Hankins, a former civil engineer who also worked with the Recovery School District as the director of capital improvements.

The OPSB recently assumed oversight responsibility for the dozens of largely autonomous charter schools that formerly operated under the RSD, which was set up by the state around the time of Hurricane Katrina to oversee scores of low-performing schools in New Orleans and elsewhere.

“I think until we get a high-quality seat in every neighborhood, a high-quality school in every neighborhood, we will still be fighting over OneApp and whether it’s effective or not,” Hankins said. “We have sections of our city that are suffering in mediocrity.”

Dr. Elizabeth Jeffers, a member of the advocacy group Step Up Louisiana, called for expanding the revised policy to cover more elementary and middle schools, as well as high schools.

Jeffers said that limited access to neighborhood schools negatively affects student behavior, as many kids have to take long bus rides twice a day and even wait on the bus for up to 30 minutes before being able to get off when the school opens its doors.

“They become behavior problems,” she said.

The Education Research Alliance found this year that OneApp changes could dramatically impact travel times for some students.

When examining data from 17 New Orleans schools for 2015-17, the alliance found that the average trip from a child’s neighborhood bus stop to those schools lasted 35 minutes. Some trips lasted up to 90 minutes, meaning some children were getting to bus stops as early as 5 a.m.

The public school system has seen dramatic changes in New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina, when most students attended neighborhood schools fairly close to their homes. According to the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, students traveled an average of 1.9 miles to school in 2004.

This year, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office found that only 46.2 percent of Orleans students live in the same area as their school — despite the fact that about half of the time families’ first-choice schools are those within their neighborhood.

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