Diversity in School Choice

This guest editorial appeared on Nola.com. Nola.com edited it for length, but the full version appears below.

New Orleans charter schools are all the same? Not true: Leslie Jacobs

Diversity_in_School_ChoiceOne key component of New Orleans’ innovative school model is school choice. When schools have to compete for students, they have to perform well or students and parents will choose to go elsewhere. Likewise, choice encourages parents to be more engaged in their child’s education by compelling them to be an active participant in deciding what school their child should attend.

An often repeated critique, however, is that while families have choice, they lack a diversity of choices: New Orleans charters are all the same.

This stereotype was echoed in the recent Cowen Institute report on New Orleans schools, which stated, “the variation in school design is largely limited to high-stakes standards-based teaching and strict discipline policies.”

So is there any truth to this criticism? Are most charter schools in New Orleans carbon copies of each other just focused on tests and discipline?

An argument can be made that statement was true five years ago. It is not true today.

In the early years, many of the charter schools did look alike and were very focused on establishing their school culture, discipline and academic programs.

But one of the key advantages of a decentralized school system is the freedom to innovate and respond to needs quicker and better. Over the past few years, schools have responded to families’ desire for diverse educational and extracurricular opportunities. And new charters continue to recognize gaps in the city’s educational landscape and launch schools to meet these needs.

Public school families in New Orleans have more choice today than ever before as schools increasingly differentiate themselves.

Families can choose small high schools focused on preparing all students for college success:

Sci Academy helped Troy Simon, a nearly illiterate middle school student, catch up academically, attend Bard University and speak at the White House.

New Orleans College Prep just graduated its first class, and with the help of its intensive college guidance program, Leonard Galman, a scholar and talented painter, is now a freshman at Yale University, overcoming the challenges of having a father who was murdered and a young teen mother.

Or more traditional high schools:

Edna Karr just won a state championship in football. The school also has a highly competitive music program that students from across the city vie to get into.

Landry Walker offers dual enrollment with local colleges in fields like electrical wiring and nursing. This school is also reigning state champion in boys basketball and its gospel choir won the 2014 Big Easy music award.

Or high schools that are purposefully more thematic:

Every student in the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy is also trained as a cadet of the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Program.

International High School complements its international business focus with Spanish and French immersion, as well as International Baccalaureate programs.

The K-8 landscape is equally diverse:

Arthur Ashe offers individualized learning using a computer-enhanced instructional program that has been profiled nationally and visited by hundreds of educators from across the country.

Morris Jeff Community School is purposefully attracting a diverse set of families to a school that is rooted in its surrounding Mid-City neighborhood.

Bricolage Academy sponsored a Mini Maker Faire, where more than 1,000 families tinkered and explored electric motorcycles and conducted other experiments that align with the school’s innovation theme.

Renew Cultural Arts Academy performed at the White House for Michelle Obama with Trombone Shorty.

KIPP McDonogh 15 Middle brass band was flown to Moscow to play at a Louisiana culture festival, and the KIPP Believe College Prep jazz band won numerous awards at Festival Disney.

The International School of Louisiana, Audubon and Lycee Francais all have language immersion programs that provide rigor in Spanish and French. Esperanza has an exceptional English Language Learners program.

The list goes on.

Of course, this does not mean that all New Orleans schools are excellent. While there is a robust diversity in school cultures and offerings, true choice will not be realized until this programmatic diversity is married with academic excellence. On that front, despite incredible growth, we still have a long way to go. But, as a city, we have built an educational system that both recognizes that there is no singular school model that is right for every child and gives schools the freedom to respond to this need.