New Orleans — A day after her children entered the halls of their fifth public school in five years, New Orleans artist and parent Anika Watson received two letters detailing something that came as no surprise: Two of her children had just begun a new school year in one of the city’s 32 failing public schools.

The state-run Recovery School District informed Watson that children attending McDonogh City Park Academy, an F-rated school, were eligible to transfer to a higher-performing school.

That’s a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Public School Choice program: Local school districts must allow students in academically unacceptable schools to transfer to higher performing, non-failing schools in the district — if there’s room.

For Kaleb, Watson’s third-grader, the transfer options were slim: Four D-rated schools, one newly authorized charter that hasn’t been graded yet, and another school with a lower academic performance score than City Park Academy.

The 10 transfer options RSD offered her fifth-grader Kaliyah included one B-rated school, seven D-rated schools, one new charter school with no assigned letter grade and two schools that, like City Park Academy, have been labeled “academically unacceptable” by the state.

The notices from RSD didn’t disclose the transfer schools’ letter grades, but when Watson looked at her options, she said, “I knew immediately that most of them were bad.”

Watson’s experience points to a key failure in New Orleans’ lauded landscape of choice-based educational reform: In a city where parental options abound, how many of the choices are reputable ones?

In the RSD, it seems, not enough.

More than seven years into the New Orleans choice experiment, documents and interviews reveal the schools are so academically anemic that the RSD didn’t comply with federal policy requiring school districts to offer higher quality alternatives to students in failing schools.

“If every student in a failing school wanted to transfer,” said Gabriela Fighetti, RSD’s executive director of enrollment, “we would not be able to guarantee them a slot.”

RSD records show that officials last summer grossly underestimated how many of its schools were failing. One week, City Park Academy was offered as a destination for countless students eligible for transfer. The next, it was identified as a failing school required to offer alternatives to its own students.

And when officials sorted that out, the options they provided to families still included schools labeled “academically unacceptable” by the state.

“Fundamentally, the letter of the law is that if they’re in a failing school, then parents ought to be given the option of a better school for their child,” said Adam Emerson, director of the Program on Parental Choice for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., education think tank. “If parents are getting options that aren’t doing any better than what their child is currently in right now, that’s a problem.”

On July 18, the RSD notified parents of students at six New Orleans schools that their children were enrolled at a failing school and were eligible for transfer through the No Child Left Behind Public School Choice Program.

Almost every parent who received a letter was given at least one F school from which to choose.

Six days later, the state Department of Education released data that showed RSD had underestimated how many of its schools were failing. Thirty-two New Orleans schools were on the list; 31 of which are directly run or overseen by the RSD.

Fighetti said the district initiated the choice program ahead of the state’s directive so students could enroll in their respective schools by the start of the new school year.

“The (school letter) grades are released quite late, she said. “It’s tough to balance that.”

The second set of letters from RSD, sent after the state had released its list of anticipated failing schools, were dated Aug. 6 — the first day of school for RSD-run schools.

Students at Cohen High School, an F school that serves 11th and 12th grades, were unable to participate in the choice program, RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed said, because the district “had no seats in non-F schools.”

In the second round of letters, none of the transfer options were F schools. But it appears that’s due largely to a technicality in the state’s grading system. Most parents got letters offering at least one of four schools with a “T” rating. The threshold for a “T” grade is the same as an F, but those schools given “turnaround” status have recently been taken over by new charter management.

In the end, 739 of 7,831 students offered transfers chose to do so. Fighetti maintained that none of them enrolled in another failing school.

Records show that 30 students of those students ended up at Gentilly Terrace Elementary, a T-rated school with a performance score of 74.9, just below the threshold of what the state considers academically acceptable.

The records show that about 40 percent of them chose a D school. About 10 percent switched to schools that were not graded in 2012 or had a T. And almost 12 percent transferred to three schools with F grades but were under new management.

“If you look at the progress, we are very proud of the gains we’ve made,” Fighetti said. “In the future, we hope to get to that point where a student who wants out of a failing school can have the option to do so. We are not there yet.”

The district’s mishandling of the federal school choice program is notable in a choice-based system, said Karran Harper Royal, who’s been following RSD’s implementation of federal school choice law for the past several years.

“How could they really be serious about choice and offer this to a parent?” she asked.

Emerson said the district’s failure to list school letter grades next to the choice transfer options defies the most basic elements of the school choice movement.

“Even if they don’t meet the (academic) requirements, parents should be told everything about their options,” Emerson said. “Parents need to be able to make an informed decision, and I wouldn’t want to find out too late in the process that I’m leaving a bad school for another bad school.”

Reed said the district agrees it’s critical to give parents such data. The district did include letter grades in its school application materials for this fall.

After sorting through the options for her own kids last fall, Watson decided to keep her children at City Park Academy this year.

That decision didn’t come without some frustration. She’d selected City Park after doing considerable homework — attending a school choice fair, completing a districtwide

application process and interviewing the school’s principal.

By the time the August notices came, school had started. Kaleb and Kaliyah had their uniforms, their teacher assignments, their books.

“Of course, I was insulted,” Watson said. “Not only did I receive letters, I got a phone call from another school telling me my kids’ school was failing and there were openings at this school.”

In the end, Watson kept her kids in the F school for the same reason she chose it at the outset: She believed in the school’s principal and her vision for her kids.

“I don’t think choice indicates quality,” she said.

Asked what she will do if City Park Academy gets another F this year, Watson said she’s hopeful that won’t happen. As long as the current administration sticks around, she said, she will, too.

This story was reported by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.