Post-Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools have made the most dramatic gains in student achievement of any urban school system in history.
Yet there remains a deep sense of dissatisfaction in our schools that continues to grip the citizenry of our city, despite the percentage of failing schools shrinking from 62 percent to 6 percent and the percentage of A or B schools growing from 13 percent to 37 percent.
New Orleanians with economic means still feel there are only a handful of schools they would send their children to. Today, a small group of nine schools, representing only 10 percent of the public schools, enrolls 50 percent of the school system’s higher-income students and 74 percent of the white students.
As a result, despite all the academic progress, New Orleans today has one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
I am an educator and a father. My daughter is 4, and I am facing the choice of where to send her to kindergarten next year. Despite having relatively intimate knowledge of the options available, I find myself falling into the same trap as the statistics predict.
I founded a charter school organization nine years ago, New Orleans College Prep, which has successfully turned around multiple schools from F to C grades over the past decade.
Despite significant progress, New Orleans College Prep schools remain almost entirely low-income and African-American. Despite being open-enrollment and tuition-free, middle-class parents and white parents have not chosen to attend our schools.
You might be thinking “that’s because C isn’t good enough — it will be a different story when your schools are As and Bs.”
But the evidence from the past 10 years suggests otherwise. There are 17 open-enrollment A and B public schools in New Orleans, and they are not any more diverse. Nonselective A and B schools enroll 25 percent of the student population but remain 85 percent low-income and 95 percent black.
While 90 percent of our schools are open-enrollment, nearly all middle-class (black and white) families enroll in the same 10 percent of our schools.
What’s different about these schools? They all have managed enrollment, either through admissions criteria or “diverse by design” student recruitment strategies as brand-new schools.
The evidence is clear — diversity in schools requires intentional design. So, I would propose a systemwide approach to manage the enrollment of all our schools — let’s make them all “diverse by design.”
We could allow all of our public schools, not just a small group, to add some form of admissions criteria — based on income level — for a subset of seats in entry grade levels, and allow that diversity to flow up one year at a time to the whole school.
With or without admissions criteria, open-enrollment schools could launch major marketing campaigns for our entry grade levels to attract more diverse parents to our schools — after all, we are a system of full parental choice. This would require school operators to alter our educational programming in order to meet the needs of ALL types of children — regardless of income or academic readiness.
Regardless of the strategy we choose, it is time to embrace a common vision as a community and take action to make our public schools everything we dream them to be.
Low-income and low-performing children should benefit from learning alongside high-income and high-performing children, making every child more prepared for life beyond school. White and black students should start marching together in Mardi Gras parades.
I believe New Orleans has the potential to be the greatest city on Earth, but the biggest thing holding us back is our segregated school system of “haves” and “have nots.”
My proposal may not be the perfect solution, and others may have better ideas. But it’s time to have a serious conversation about what we’re going to do to diversify our public schools because the data is clear — it won’t happen on its own.
Then, and only then, will we truly realize our vision of an excellent school for every child in New Orleans, regardless of demographics or economic advantage. A school system that represents our city’s population and exemplifies excellence and equity for all children. The best school system in the world.
Ben Kleban is founder/CEO of New Orleans College Prep Charter Schools.