When it’s a brisk winter day and you want to attract schoolchildren and their parents, it helps to bring warm buttermilk drops and hot coffee.
Or so Alex Hochran and his staff learned Saturday morning, as they grabbed clipboards and mingled with parents, talking about their brand-new school.
Named for Louisiana’s first African-American lieutenant governor, 150 years ago, IDEA Oscar Dunn School will open next fall to students entering kindergarten through fifth grade.
With deadlines for the OneApp citywide application process coming early next year, it’s crunchtime for the school, which projects an enrollment of 360 students when it opens next year.
So, on Saturday morning, the staff set up a small blue tent near the start of the inaugural Jingle on the Boulevard parade in New Orleans East. Behind them, dance teams in Santa hats and marching bands in uniforms warmed up. In front of them, residents walked along the Crowder Boulevard sidewalk.
Before long, some parents stopped to talk.
Chenika Williams, 30, asked Hochran about the Texas-based IDEA Public Schools network’s scores at its other schools and was pleased to hear that they generally have earned A's and B's. She also asked about extracurricular activities like theater and art, which her son and daughter now enjoy at their school in Jefferson Parish.
Williams plans to move her family to eastern New Orleans before the upcoming school year, but she’s not yet satisfied with the educational options in the area. “I just haven’t found the right school,” she said.
It’s been only a month since the Orleans Parish School Board assigned IDEA Oscar Dunn a location: the Frances Gaudet campus at 12000 Hayne Blvd. ReNEW Schaumburg is temporarily holding classes at Gaudet this year while 2017 tornado damage on its Grant Street building is repaired.
The OPSB granted IDEA a charter last year, but several public school campuses were up for grabs, so its eventual location was unclear until last month. Over the past year, Hochran, the school’s assistant principal of operations, and Principal Chris Joyce spoke with prospective parents in a number of neighborhoods, including the west bank and Central City, where they thought they might end up.
But for the past month, Hochran and Joyce have zeroed in on New Orleans East. They have set up tables in front of grocery stores, knocked on doors, walked neighborhood streets to talk with porch sitters, and talked with patrons at Joe W. Brown Park and the East New Orleans Regional Library.
In one way, they are basically like salesmen making cold calls to customers who know nothing about them.
New Orleanians don’t know that a 2017 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found high performance in the IDEA Public Schools network of 79 schools, most of them in Texas.
“In New Orleans, so many charter schools have come and gone,” Hochran said. “And no one knows IDEA, so we risk being lost.”
But on some days, like Saturday, as eager parents crowded around the blue tent, it can feel like IDEA Oscar Dunn is sought after, that it is bringing a welcome new school to a neighborhood that needs more educational options.
A OneApp audit released by the state legislative auditor in August found that children from New Orleans East travel farther to school than students from any other section of the city, that the East has fewer schools per student than any other attendance zone, and that it has no open-admission elementary or middle schools that have earned a grade higher than C.
That leaves people in the East wanting more.
Roderick Huntington, 8, takes the bus every day to a school in Treme, which seems too far to his grandmother, Tanya Brumfield, 49. Brumfield asked questions about IDEA Oscar Dunn’s academic rankings and its philosophy of teaching children. She nodded at what she heard.
She would really like Roderick to attend a strong academic school. And she’d like that school to be in the East. “I would like to have him closer,” she said.
Update: An earlier version of this article provided incorrect information related to the OneApp process. Students applying to any of five selective-admission schools that participate in OneApp must submit their list of ranked schools by Jan. 11. The deadline is Feb. 22 if an applicant is not applying to any of these selective-admission schools.