school bus stock

When officials announced in November that a new campus of the highly rated Hynes Charter School would be opening in Gentilly in partnership with the University of New Orleans, they said it would provide 75 kindergarten seats next school year in a district where parents have clamored for open spots in high-quality schools.

However, after the Orleans Parish School Board likely votes to approve the new elementary school on Thursday, as few as 26 of those seats could be available to the general public, thanks to enrollment preferences that include children of full-time UNO employees.

Altogether, 25 percent of seats will be reserved for residents living within a half-mile of the school, 25 percent for residents in a geographic zone encompassing two ZIP codes and another 15 percent for families of UNO faculty and custodial staff members living in Orleans Parish.

District officials announced the new school's enrollment priorities during a committee meeting Tuesday at which board members paved the way for the new school to open by voting to pass its charter operating agreement and sending it to the full board for final approval.

Amanda Aiken, the OPSB's portfolio officer, said the district was "enthusiastic" about the prospect of replicating Hynes, one of the few A-rated and most in-demand schools in the city.

The preference for families affiliated with UNO, Aiken said, was allowed by state law and was given because the university had shown "commitment to providing the land for this new school."

Moreover, because of where the school is located, Aiken said, it would be giving preference to minority and low-income students. The two ZIP codes for which Hynes at UNO will have a geographic priority are more than 80 percent African-American, she said.

The new school will operate at the former Jean Gordon School "swing space," at 6101 Chatham Drive, until a new building is constructed on the UNO campus. It will replicate Hynes' values and curriculum and will offer two programs: a traditional one and a French immersion program.

"This represents a strong commitment not only to diversity but to innovation," Aiken said Tuesday.

Aiken said the district was directly responding to a 2017 report by the Urban League of Louisiana that singled out the original Hynes Charter School in Lakeview for having an "equity issue" because of enrollment priorities that "keep the school’s student demographics overwhelmingly white."

That campus, at 990 Harrison Ave., has in recent years accepted up to 66 percent of its students from the school's immediate neighborhood, thanks to enrollment priority exceptions approved by the Orleans Parish School Board, the report noted.

Generally, the OPSB allows schools to save half their seats for students living in certain geographic zones. This year OneApp, the system that matches families to spaces at most of the city's public schools, set aside 25 percent of available seats for students living within a half-mile of a school.

Another 25 percent were set aside for students in one of seven broad geographic zones, which often include multiple ZIP codes.

Hynes has its own admissions priorities, however, as education activist and former teacher Peter Cook underscored in a recent blog. 

The school last year set aside 25 percent of available seats for applicants who reside within a half-mile of the school and more than 40 percent of seats for students who reside in the Lakeview-centered 70124 ZIP code, which is more than 90 percent white and has a poverty rate of just 6.5 percent, according to 2017 census data estimates.

The enrollment restrictions at Hynes have made its student body drastically different from those at most other public schools in New Orleans, according to data provided by the OPSB and the Louisiana Department of Education.

Demographic data provided by the OPSB in January showed that 78.2 percent of students enrolled in the city's public schools, including charter schools that are within city limits but are run by the state, are black; only 9.39 percent are white.

The city's schools teach a lot of students whose families struggle to make ends meet, too, as about 81.9 percent are considered to be "at risk."

At Hynes, the student body is both whiter and richer than at most other public schools.

Data from the state's Oct. 1 enrollment counts show that 359 of the school's 711 students, or 50.5 percent, are white and 34.8 percent are black.

Moreover, only 31.8 percent of Hynes students are economically disadvantaged, making it one of the schools with the lowest number of families that struggle financially in the city.

The school, which has received an A grade from the Louisiana Department of Education for more than five years, has also repeatedly earned academic accolades from the state and the OPSB, making it one of the most coveted schools in the city. Last year, more than 1,000 applications poured in for just 75 kindergarten seats, officials said.

No parents spoke out against the charter agreement at Tuesday's meeting, but Karran Harper Royal, a parent activist, said in an interview that while she agrees with neighborhood preferences for families applying to schools so that kids can attend near their homes, she thinks that partnerships that allow preferences for university employees create an "equity issue."

"If we're talking about equity, some families don't have the luxury of working at a university," she said. "When you have university employee preference, that's when you start to set up a tiered system."


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.