School 2014 fall enrollment begins this month

An old cliché about public schools in New Orleans holds that a sizable portion of students just won’t show up to enroll until after Labor Day, even if the official school year starts weeks earlier.

Well, how about in November? Not three months late, that is, but nine months early?

The official enrollment period for the vast majority of public schools in New Orleans opens on Monday. That’s a full half-year before this school year comes to an end and three months earlier than when officials first rolled out the new common application process, known as the OneApp, in 2012.

The schedule reflects a cultural shift that’s been going on for years in New Orleans, where parents and students are now asked to choose from among independent charter schools across the city, rather than automatically attend a traditional neighborhood school. However, the early start also reflects the difficulty that officials have had in convincing all of the city’s schools to join the new enrollment system.

The state’s Recovery School District, which took over most public schools in the parish after Hurricane Katrina, designed the OneApp, but it has been trying to get the smaller number of schools left under the Orleans Parish School Board, as well as the handful of independent, state-authorized charters, to use the application system as well.

Advocates for students with special needs, who have accused some schools of shutting out the city’s neediest children, have pushed for a simple, transparent process that encompasses every school. Yet RSD officials have faced skepticism from both parish school board members and the principals of charter schools that fall under the board, who worry about ceding control of something as important as enrollment to the RSD.

Pushing the dates up apparently helped. It convinced Edna Karr High School on the West Bank to join, for instance, said RSD enrollment director Gabriela Fighetti. Formerly a magnet school, Karr typically begins recruiting students around this time of year, she said.

The RSD also won over a handful of schools that have selective admission requirements, incorporating those requirements into the complicated algorithm that assigns students to schools. The International School of Louisiana and the Lycee Francais, for example, require that students have a certain amount of foreign language proficiency if they enroll after a certain age.

For Karr and the handful of selective schools that have joined the OneApp, families will have until Dec. 20 to turn in an application.

For most schools, though, the deadline is Feb. 28, with notification letters scheduled to go out to families the week of April 7.

Even though more than 90 percent of the city’s public schools now enroll students through one system, there are still a few holdouts, among them some of the schools most highly sought after by parents.

Lusher Charter School and Benjamin Franklin High School, for instance, two magnet schools whose academic performance ranks them among the best in the state, still enroll students on their own. That means families who want to try for a spot at one of those schools will have to fill out more than one application if they want to have a safety choice in case they are refused by Lusher or Franklin.

Even those schools may eventually have to join the OneApp, however. Every charter school has to get its charter contract renewed periodically, and the School Board voted last year to require that OneApp participation be written into those contracts. The only problem, from the RSD’s perspective, is that some charter contracts won’t expire until 2021.

Franklin Principal Tim Rusnak said that’s fine with him. In an interview last week, Rusnak said he is happy to have the RSD work the kinks out of its new system before his school joins. And in any case, he said, he doesn’t think the OneApp jibes with one of the main tenets of the philosophy behind charter schools: autonomy.

“We’re concerned about being sucked into this one-size-fits-all model, which is great for bureaucrats but not great for schools,” Rusnak said. “It’s important that parents be involved, and the OneApp does not involve parents. You fill out a piece of paper and you don’t come to the school, you don’t have dialogue with the school.”