Charter schools in New Orleans, LA (NOLA) receive a great deal of attention, in no small part because they serve a larger proportion of public school students than do charters in any other major U.S. city. Less discussed, however, is the prevalence of NOLA’s “selective schools” (elsewhere, they are sometimes called “exam schools”). These schools maintain criteria for admission and/or retention, based on academic and other qualifications (often grades and/or standardized test scores).
At least six of NOLA’s almost 90 public schools are selective – one high school, four (P)K-8 schools and one serving grades K-12. When you add up their total enrollment, around one in eight NOLA students attends one of these schools.*
Although I couldn’t find recent summary data on the prevalence of selective schools in urban districts around the U.S., this is almost certainly an extremely high proportion (for instance, selective schools in New York City and Chicago, which are mostly secondary schools, serve only a tiny fraction of students in those cities).
A couple of these New Orleans schools have been around for a long time, operating with admission/retention criteria. Virtually all of them are run by the Orleans Parish School Board, and none by the statewide Recovery School District (RSD). And they are all charter schools (all of the city’s historic selective schools having been converted into charters at some point after Hurricane Katrina). Neither of these latter two facts is surprising, especially given that four in five New Orleans students attend charter schools, and the RSD had a mandate to take over the state's “lowest-performing” schools (a category into which selective schools presumably do not fall).
Just to give a rough idea of the students attending these schools, at least in terms of the standard education variables: Approximately 40 percent of them are eligible for free/reduced-price lunch, compared with 85 percent across all NOLA schools. Similarly, about 45 percent of selective school students are African-American, compared with 88 percent citywide; the majority of the city’s white students attend selective schools.
Opinions about these schools, in NOLA and elsewhere, are, as usual, complicated. On the one hand, there are those who feel that selective schools provide a place in which high-performing students can flourish. On the other hand, opponents might argue that these schools entail an institutionalized form of “creaming," by which high-performing students are effectively segregated from their peers. Overall, I suspect that most people believe that there's some appropriate role for programs designed for high-performing students, but they may vary in terms of their views of what that role should look like (e.g., Advanced Placement versus entire schools with admission criteria).
But the sheer proportional size of NOLA's “selective sector” might represent a different league, even among strong supporters of selective schools. Of course, it’s important to note that not all of the students attending these schools would necessarily remain in the public system if these schools didn’t exist; for example, some parents might opt to send their kids to private schools, or they might leave the city entirely.
In either case, it carries implications for NOLA’s education system as a whole, as a fairly large proportion of the city’s higher-performing public school students are concentrated in a handful of selective institutions. I cannot say whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing by some absolute standard, but it could certainly carry implications for the performance of non-selective schools, charter and regular public, as well as for numerous related outcomes, such as teacher recruitment/retention.
- Matt Di Carlo
* This may be a conservative estimate, as it doesn’t include a few schools that are somewhat ambiguous in terms of whether or not they’re selective. For instance, Warren Easton High School has an application process asking for students’ academic history, and requires that students maintain a minimum GPA of 1.5 (this document quotes the school's handbook, which I could not find, as saying that students “may be excluded” upon failure to meet this 1.5 minimum, whereas the school’s website only says students must receive remediation if their GPA is below 1.75). It's also worth noting that, among the students attending one of the six "officially" selective schools, about one in three attends Lusher, a K-12 charter school.