“No one was telling us the school was failing.”
Tyra Wilson was concerned about the teacher and school leader turnover at her daughter’s school in New Orleans. Ty’Viana had three teachers in her first grade year at Medard Nelson Elementary, and it seemed like there was a new principal practically every year.*
“I thought it was odd,” Wilson says. “Like why are they going through so many principals? But no one was telling us the school was failing. Ty’Viana was happy. She was doing well there.”
Wilson tried not to worry. Ty’Viana was in the choir and the captain of the cheerleading squad. She scored well on her reading and math assessments, and brought home good grades.
But then, in the fall of Ty’Viana’s third grade year, the Orleans Parish School Board and New Beginnings, the charter organization operating Nelson, called a meeting for parents. Wilson learned that Nelson, which had received a grade of ‘F’ from the state for the past three years, would close the following school year.
It came as a shock. Even though Wilson had been aware of the school’s poor rating, the implications of the state letter grade — either for her daughter, or for the school’s stability — were much less clear. Ty’Viana and her classmates were particularly upset by the news. “They’ve been there since pre-K,” says Wilson. “All their friends are there. They know the teachers.”
For Tyra Wilson herself, the issue wasn’t so much the decision to close the school, but the process. “I’m not mad that they decided to close the school,” she says, looking back on what happened. “I understand they have to do what they have to do. But they knew the school was failing. They could’ve given us a heads-up earlier.”
The shock of the announcement quickly turned into uncertainty about what would come next. “We had to go through the OneApp process again,” Wilson explains, referring to New Orleans’ centralized school application. “Just fill out the application to all the schools—hoping one of them would accept our kids.”
*Tyra’s observation is consistent with Louisiana Department of Education data on Nelson, which shows that nearly half of Nelson’s teachers turned over each year.
School closures hurt.
And unfortunately, all too often, families end up with very little educational gain to show for the disruption they experience. Typically, when schools are slated for closure, students are reassigned to the nearest school with an open seat. Since top-rated schools are generally over-subscribed, students tend to find themselves in other schools that are nearly as weak as the ones they just left — and might even be next on the closure list. Families don’t tend to have much, if any, agency in the process.
The disruptions of school closure can have a lasting impact, too. Six years after Chicago Public Schools shuttered nearly 50 elementary schools, a large-scale study from the University of Chicago found that the closures did not expose students to better academic opportunities: At best, the academic outcomes of the closures were neutral; at worst, the disruption caused long-term academic losses. Students’ test scores in math and reading trended down after transferring to new schools, and while reading scores tended to rebound eventually, students’ losses in math persisted.
On top of that, closures don’t affect all families equally. Nationwide, low-income and minority families — who already bear the brunt of educational inequality — are disproportionately affected by school closures, because low-performing schools with higher proportions of students of color and those from low-income families are more likely to close than schools with similar performance but whiter and more affluent student populations. As Eve Ewing explores in her new book about school closures in Chicago, closures are often impossible to separate from the breakdown of other institutions — like healthcare and affordable housing — in Black and Latinx communities.
Nationwide, low-income and minority families — who already bear the brunt of educational inequality — are disproportionately affected by school closures.
Unfortunately, school closures are also sometimes unavoidable. Schools occasionally must be closed due to factors like declining enrollment, facilities issues, chronic poor performance, or some combination thereof. In addition, there is evidence that closing failing schools and replacing them with higher performing schools is having a positive impact on school quality in New Orleans overall.
What if there were a better way to handle closures — one that prioritized families’ needs before the needs of the district or charter organization, while still acknowledging the realities of the circumstances? What can school systems do to put families first in the closure process, so students and families do not become collateral damage? What would it take to live up to what we call the “Upgrade Rule”: that no school should be closed unless students have a real opportunity to “upgrade” to a better school as a result of the closure?
We have been exploring these questions over the last two school years while partnering with the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB, now known as NOLA Public Schools) in Louisiana to support families affected by school closures across the city of New Orleans. In their approach to the closure process, OPSB considered how to give families from closing schools a viable path to finding seats in other schools of their choice and a less traumatic experience overall. In coordination with OPSB, EnrollNOLA, and the schools themselves, we focused on ensuring families knew exactly what they needed to do, understood their school options, and always had someone knowledgeable they could turn to for advice and guidance.
What would it take to live up to the “Upgrade Rule”: that no school should be closed unless students have a real opportunity to “upgrade” to a better school?
From 2017–19, we dedicated particular attention to students and families transitioning out of seven long-struggling schools with D and F ratings. Alongside OPSB, we put flyers in students’ backpacks and school hallways, mailed families personalized packets of information, hosted dozens of in- and out-of-school events to offer expert advice on the school choice process, took questions via a 1–800 hotline, and made calls and home visits to ensure families submitted their applications on time.
In the end, these and other strategies made a difference. The school closure process was still difficult and emotional for students and families. But the vast majority of them navigated it successfully and got an upgrade through the process. While seats in the city’s highest performing schools remained scarce, 93 percent of students from closing schools with D-F letter grades landed in a new school that was at least one letter grade better, and 66 percent gained seats in a school two letter grades better.
Tyra Wilson’s daughter was one of them.
What worked for Wilson and her daughter? And what would it take to give more families like hers what they deserve when their schools have to be closed: clarity, meaningful support, and a pathway into better schools for their kids? In this paper, we document the supports we provided, explore what we have learned to date, and offer recommendations for other school systems grappling with possible closures.
Two Years of School Closures in New Orleans
In the spring and fall of 2017, nearly 800 families in three New Orleans schools — Mahalia Jackson, ReNEW McDonogh City Park Academy, and Sylvanie Williams College Prep — got word that their schools were set to close at the end of the 2017–18 academic year. A year later, the closures of five more New Orleans schools were announced, affecting the families of more than 1,500 students: Cypress Academy, Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, Medard Nelson Elementary, and McDonogh №32 Literacy Charter and William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy (both part of Algiers Charter Schools network). All told, nearly one in 20 New Orleans students has been affected by a school closure since 2016.
The closure decisions were made for varied reasons. For most (Sylvanie Williams, Nelson, Fischer, and McDonogh 32 among them), the decision was based on persistent poor performance over the years. OPSB made the decision to close Mahalia Jackson after a plan to turn it over to a charter operator fell through. ReNEW McDonogh City Park was closed when its charter operator decided not to renew the charter. Cypress was closed by school leadership in the face of financial challenges, and Harney was closed after ongoing issues of compliance and financial mismanagement.
All of these decisions may have been understandable — and unavoidable — from the school system’s perspective. But for the families, the closure announcements were deeply frustrating and worrying.
Moreover, even though many of the challenges these schools were facing were known among school and network leaders, Board members, and policymakers, news of the closures often blindsided families. Navigator Rameisha “Ramie” Johnson says that many families hadn’t been receiving clear information about their schools’ performance to begin with.
“A lot of families felt that their kids were doing well in the school,” explains Johnson. “But the school hadn’t been communicating with them clearly — they didn’t know what was really going on. Their kids were getting A’s but they didn’t understand that the vast majority of students were not able to demonstrate fluency with the content when it came to state tests. The expectations were just very low for our children.”
On top of that, families feel attached to their children’s schools, even if they know certain things are lacking. “Families are emotionally driven,” says Johnson. “They’ll say ‘the school made my child feel loved.’”
Tyra Wilson felt that way about Nelson, where her daughter had been a student for five years, since pre-K; it was Ty’Viana’s first and only school. “When I saw her report cards, she was doing well. The teachers really love the kids — they call them their babies.”
“It doesn’t matter how much the school loves your child, if they’re not instilling the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, what good is that love doing? That love becomes a crutch. And the kids will never catch up.”
— Rameisha Johnson, Navigator
Ramie Johnson understands, because she went through school closure twice — first with her daughter’s school, Mahalia Jackson, and the following year with her son’s, Cypress. “I spent a lot of time in conversations with families saying, ‘I get it, but….’ It doesn’t matter how much the school loves your child, if they’re not instilling the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, what good is that love doing? That love becomes a crutch. And the kids will never catch up.”
Research shows that the kids who are most often affected by school closures are the same students who bear the brunt of so many of our education system’s shortcomings. This was true in New Orleans, where the closed schools were disproportionately serving low-income families of color. Among the 2017 closures, Mahalia Jackson and Sylvanie Williams sat about half a mile apart in Central City, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Both served nearly 100 percent Black and Latinx students from low-income families. ReNEW McDonogh City Park Academy was located on the more affluent side of N. Broad Street in Mid City, but most of City Park’s students traveled from outside the neighborhood; nearly 100 percent of them were also Black and Latinx, and about 80 percent were from low-income families.
The 2018 closures, too, affected largely low-income families of color. Of the five closing schools, four served nearly 100 percent students of color and those from low-income families — higher concentrations even than New Orleans’ schools overall, which serve around 87 percent students of color and 84 percent students from low-income backgrounds. Only Cypress Academy, at 69 percent students of color and 65 percent students from low-income families, served proportionally fewer low-income and minority students than the city as a whole.**
How EdNavigator Supported Families in Closing Schools
Intent on finding a better, more proactive way to support families transitioning out of closing schools, the Orleans Parish School Board contracted with EdNavigator beginning in 2017. EdNavigator’s role was to provide independent guidance to families as they considered their school options and navigated the OneApp process.
Because OPSB did not retain any control over the content of our guidance, and because our Navigators were not affiliated with any particular school or network, Navigators were free to provide advice and perspective based on their deep knowledge of the local schools, and were therefore able to help families choose schools that would be the right fit for their children. Aware that students from closing schools all too often end up in schools that aren’t performing much better than the ones whose doors are shutting, Navigators paid special attention to ensuring each family understood all of their options and could make informed decisions about their selections.
When the closures were announced, families received flyers and emails with information about how EdNavigator could help them and were encouraged to reach out. After the OneApp system began accepting applications, in November, we escalated our support efforts: We started doing direct outreach to families and mailed out personalized packets of information with a set of FAQs about OneApp, tips for navigating OneApp strategically, and a list of recommended schools that might not already be on families’ radars.
Wary of missing families whose contact information might be out of date, we also arranged for schools to send copies of our packet home in each student’s backpack. Packets were available in Spanish as well as English, and included instructions on how to access support if families spoke other languages such as French-Creole or Vietnamese.
Families were invited to meet in person with Navigators and to access one-on-one support before and after school. These conversations were aimed at understanding some core priorities for each family. That required zeroing in on a just a few key questions, often in just a short conversation.
“Initially, a lot of the conversations would start off with, ‘What type of school do you want?’ And the answer would be ‘a good school,’” says Ramie Johnson. “Parents don’t necessarily have a clear definition of what that means to them — it’s bigger than the letter grade. So I’d ask some basic questions — no jargon — like do you want a school that’s close to home, or close to work? Does your child participate in any extracurriculars? Do you need other amenities, like care before or after school? Then we’d go from there.”
With a handful of schools in mind that would meet those basic needs, Navigators would pull up websites, offer insights drawn from other families’ experiences, and encourage families to visit schools in person. If families felt confident in their school choices, many submitted their OneApp forms on the spot with the Navigator’s support.
Finally, as OneApp’s main round deadline approached (when the vast majority of open seats in New Orleans schools are allocated), we worked alongside OPSB to do extensive outreach to families who hadn’t yet submitted, including calling, texting, emailing, and even visiting families at home; connecting with teachers to help find families we had been unable to reach; and showing up at school events. Taken together, we pushed on every available lever to make sure every family maximized their chances to get their child into the school of their choice.
While the types of support we provided to families from closing schools looked similar in 2017 and 2018, we made some adaptations to build on what we learned based on our experiences in the first year. In 2018, we dropped some of the in-person events that didn’t prove fruitful in 2017 (more on that later), in exchange for doing more outreach at existing school events. Another notable change in 2018 was that EnrollNOLA, the OPSB entity that runs New Orleans’ school application process, became more proactively involved in getting families to complete their OneApp applications, enabling our Navigators to focus more intensively on helping families explore their school options rather than simply submitting their applications.
In total, we provided information or support to the families of approximately 1,700 students across the closing schools. Over two school years, we tested multiple strategies to see what made the biggest difference for families: What kind of information did parents want and need? What forms of outreach worked to get that information to them? What supports simply helped families feel better about the whole thing?
Here’s what we’ve learned — so far — about how to make the school closure process less painful for families, and more likely to result in an upgrade.
How to Help Families Get an Upgrade
1. Give them preferential treatment in the enrollment process.
This is the heart of the Upgrade Rule. Typically, the decision to close a school (or schools) is rooted in a set of considerations about that school’s viability and performance: Is this school irredeemably poorly performing? Has it exhausted all second chances? Have we tried a switch of leadership? New programming? Additional resources? Those are necessary questions to ask, but they leave out the other half of the equation: What impact will the closure have on families?
Closure decisions also need to take into account the likelihood of achieving better educational opportunities for students and recognize that closures are profoundly disruptive to families. Most students in closing schools have already been poorly served by their education system; school and district leaders should do everything possible to ensure this pattern is not perpetuated through the closure process itself. School systems considering shuttering a school should have a plan for ensuring that the vast majority of affected families have the option to transfer to meaningfully better schools within a reasonable geographic distance.
Most students in closing schools have already been poorly served by their education system; school and district leaders should do everything possible to ensure this pattern is not perpetuated through the closure process itself.
In New Orleans, the single most effective strategy for doing this was the district’s choice to give displaced families priority status in OneApp. “Priority status” meant that families from closing schools would be considered ahead of other students for open seats in the schools they listed as their top choices (although those seats would still be assigned by lottery). In a city where the top performing schools have few openings from year to year, that status represented a critical advantage. It was not a politically easy choice — for example, it meant that students from closing schools would be in line for open seats ahead of even siblings of current students, opening the door to considerable pushback — but the district stuck to it in an effort to ensure that students from closing schools were fairly accounted for in the re-enrollment process.
It was a smart and hugely important decision, made originally by Recovery School District and then continued by OPSB — and one that was only possible in New Orleans because of the centralized enrollment process to begin with. (In most school systems, students in closing schools are defaulted to the next closest school with an open seat.) For a start, giving families priority status helped mitigate one of the major side effects of school closure: families feeling neglected and undervalued.
Distrust runs deep when a community’s school is shut down. The families we worked with in New Orleans felt that the rug had been pulled out from under them — and it had. Getting preferential treatment in the enrollment process didn’t make that uncertainty and fear go away, but it did send a clear message that their system leaders understood the gravity of the situation, and were working to rebuild a positive relationship. In some small way, it helped assuage some of the anxiety that was inevitable under the circumstances.
At the same time, priority status wasn’t a guarantee of a top choice. Some of the families we worked with became newly frustrated all over again when they didn’t receive a placement in one of their top choices, in spite of the advantage. Hugely popular schools like Edward Hynes and Alice Harte have very few seats open in any given year, so even with priority status, many families were inevitably disappointed. At Hynes, for example, just 12 percent of all families who applied for kindergarten seats this year got them; at Alice Harte, it was 22 percent. There are even fewer seats open in non-entry-level grades, so families coming from closing schools might be competing for just a seat or two in, say, third or fourth grade.
Moreover, a handful of popular schools like Lusher and Lake Forest aren’t yet part of OneApp, so priority status didn’t offer leverage in those application processes anyway. (Lusher and Lake Forest are selective admissions schools, each with their own criteria for offering places to students. Three selective admissions schools, Lusher, Lake Forest, and Benjamin Franklin High School, will be joining OneApp in November 2022 for the following school year.)
If the goal is to make school closures as painless as possible for families — and give as many students as possible a better school than they started with — then the process has to be engineered to help them make the most out of the application process, while simultaneously being transparent and not over-promising families an advantage that won’t meet their expectations.
Give displaced families an advantage in the school enrollment system. In a district where families already have school choice, giving extra points or priority status to those from closed schools is doable within the existing structure. School systems that are fully zoned by location will need to get more creative to ensure that families are not simply defaulted to their next neighborhood option. System leaders might consider reserving seats in magnet schools for displaced students, offering zone exemptions, or adjusting the boundaries of zones around closed schools to make more options available. Whatever form that advantage takes, it should take into account the options families already have access to, and ensure that those whose options are most limited are getting the biggest boost. If there’s no way to do this, it should point leaders back to the original question at the heart of the Upgrade Rule: If there is truly no way to give families a better option, is closing the school really the right choice?
But don’t overstate the advantage. School systems should give displaced families an advantage, but they should also manage expectations and be clear about any limitations of their advantage. In New Orleans, advertising “closing school priority” helped encourage families to participate in OneApp, but it also exacerbated the sense of disappointment when families did not get into high-demand schools despite having the advantage. Data can help here: Parents should be given access to clear data about enrollment in prior years, to understand what percentage of families are assigned to their top choice and so on down the line. Transparency around the numbers of open seats in each grade level at each school will also help families make informed decisions about what schools to aim for.
Help families use their advantage effectively. Whatever kind of advantage families are given, make sure the process is clear. The advantage should be baked into the application process so families don’t have to fill out a special form or make a special request to receive it; no one should have to opt in. We spent a lot of time with families just reiterating what priority status meant for them, and making sure they knew how to take advantage of it. In New Orleans, this meant ensuring that families identified as many schools where they’d be happy as possible, to maximize their chances of getting one of those choices. This worked well: Overall, the families we worked with listed about four schools per family, and about 94 percent of students got a seat in a school of their choice. Among families in closing schools with D-F ratings, 91 percent received a placement in one of their top three choices; just 68 percent of all families in OneApp’s main round did so.
2. Operate on a timeline that maximizes opportunities for families.
There’s no right time to tell a family that they need to find a new school for their child when they weren’t expecting to. But there’s definitely a wrong time to do that, and that’s usually when it’s too late for families to find other good options for the following school year.
In New Orleans, OneApp opens in late November, and applications are due for the main round in late February. But there are several popular selective admissions schools that have separate admissions requirements and different (and earlier) timelines. Catholic schools and private schools in New Orleans often have an earlier application timeline, too, holding open houses early in the fall. We found that while it was critical to focus on getting all families to apply through OneApp by the February main round deadline, we also needed to flag earlier opportunities, since it was almost too late for some of them by the time closures were announced.
In most of the closed schools, families received word early in the fall. But that wasn’t always the case. At Edgar P. Harney, for example, the closure was announced in early November. That timeline, driven largely by compliance failures of the charter board operating the school, cut close to the opening of OneApp’s main round. This gave families little time to come to terms with the closure before they had to start considering options for the following year. And families who wanted to consider selective enrollment schools or private or religious institutions didn’t have much time to learn about those application requirements, attend open houses, and prepare for the process.
We also saw, in some cases, the opposite problem: closures being announced so early that it put additional stress on families. The families at Mahalia Jackson learned about their school’s impending closure in April 2017 — after OneApp had closed for the coming school year, but long before they could start finding new placements for the year after. This put them in a difficult position: They would have to return to Mahalia Jackson in the fall and go through an entire year knowing that their school was shutting down. In 2018, this problem cropped up again at Cypress, where families learned that the charter wouldn’t be renewed over a year before the doors would officially close.
Finding the “perfect” time to announce a closure is probably impossible. Regardless of the timeline, families need time to process the news. And there are some basic guidelines school systems can follow when laying out their closure timeline, to give families time to grieve, but also not let the process linger too long.
Take into account the application timelines for all the local schools. When planning the closure timeline, school and district leaders need to take into account the application timelines for not just other city schools, but all types of schools families might want to choose from — including charter schools, selective admissions public schools, and private and parochial schools. Moreover, families need time to consider their options. This means that closures need to be announced — and school choice information needs to be distributed — with ample time before applications are due to other schools. Since applications to schools outside the district system might be due earlier, it’s important to line up a comprehensive set of guidance for families at the very start of the process.
Aim for the sweet spot between giving families enough time and too much time. At the same time, it is possible to announce a closure too early, like we saw at Mahalia Jackson and Cypress. It’s important to bear in mind that the closure process really starts as soon as the announcement is made, because families and teachers will start to abandon ship as soon as they have the opportunity to do so. Families need advance notice to take advantage of other opportunities, but not so much time that the families left at the closing school have an even worse experience for the rest of the school year.
In our experience, four to six weeks before the enrollment process starts is a good balance. If a city’s application process opens in late fall, as it does in New Orleans, closures should be announced to families — and families should receive information about their other school options — at the end of summer or the beginning of the new school year.
Stagger supports for families to avoid information overload. School districts understandably want to give parents a lot of information in a short time window — and information matters. But news about closures can feel like an onslaught, especially when parents have to dive into choosing new schools right away. Families need to grieve the loss of their current school before they’re ready to choose a new one, and they will not take action until it is absolutely clear that the closure decision is final. Closure announcements should be made initially on their own, without an immediate action step. A buffer before families have to start selecting new schools gives families time to process before they have to jump into action mode.
3. Invest substantial resources in the best possible communication to families.
Families going through the confusion and stress of a school closure deserve clear, useful information that helps them understand what’s happening, what their options are, and what they need to do next. In New Orleans, we observed that there was a lot of information about different school options for families (including parochial and private schools), but that that information was not well centralized in a way that was accessible to parents. This is always a challenge for families living in a city with a complex school choice system, but it’s even more urgent in the context of school closure, when parents are faced with changing schools unexpectedly.
To address this problem, we created comprehensive school choice packets for every family. Each packet included the student’s individual OneApp identification number, laid out information about the OneApp process and deadlines, alerted parents to schools that were not part of OneApp, and offered a list of our recommended schools.
We considered a combination of factors to identify these recommended schools: student outcomes data, school grades, as well as our Navigators’ observations and the experiences of families we’ve supported. Our goal with this list was not to communicate that only these schools were good choices, but to encourage families to at least investigate them. We found that families tended to gravitate toward the small handful of very popular schools they’d heard of — places like Hynes and Alice Harte — but those schools were among the most difficult to get into. We wanted to broaden families’ universe of possibilities and give them more solid choices, including schools they might not know as well, but which could be more likely to have open seats. Above all, we encouraged families to make informed decisions based on what they needed from a school, rather than relying purely on a school’s word-of-mouth reputation in the community.
In addition to centralizing information, we found that key information bore repeating, multiple times. There were so many details for families to keep track of, and there was no wiggle room when it came to application forms and deadlines. The most important details — final application deadlines and the steps parents needed to take to meet those deadlines — needed to be front and center and repeated frequently so they didn’t get lost.
Give families clear information about schools. Families should receive comprehensive information from their district with information about all their school options. In New Orleans, families had access to data from many sources: EnrollNOLA’s school finder, state report cards, the NOLA Equity Index, and sites like GreatSchools.org. Not all families are going to want that much data, but at a minimum, districts should provide an easy way to identify nearby schools and find out how they’re serving different kinds of students. When a closure happens within a charter network, families will often default to choosing another school within the network, simply out of familiarity (even if it’s not necessarily a better school). Families should be given objective information about school quality even within their current network, and they should understand what their alternatives are. In our work, Navigators played a critical role in this respect, acting as independent, knowledgeable advisors for families.
Offer families personal support. Clarity about deadlines and application processes is critical — especially when those processes are convoluted or decentralized — but often what families need most is someone to help them sort through all the information and make an informed choice for their children. Finding the right school, of course, is about much more than performance metrics and location. And those decisions quickly become more complicated for families balancing multiple children’s needs (not to mention the challenge of getting seats for more than one child). School systems might consider offering families consultations with independent advisors like EdNavigator, but this support could also come from a specialized transition team within the school system; regardless, it’s important that someone is specifically charged with supporting families through the process and ensuring that they get what they want and need. Families need guidance that puts their needs first, ahead of the school system’s.
Speak families’ languages. This is true both literally and figuratively. It’s vital that communications about closures be translated into families’ home languages so parents and other caregivers are able to fully access information without relying on students to be interpreters. All communications should minimize jargon and clearly explain any data that’s being presented (especially on school quality). And messaging should put parents and families front and center, and not assume a level of familiarity with education policy that is simply unrealistic. Information about the application process should be as centralized as possible, too: Instead of multiple different letters and forms, consider putting everything families need to know into comprehensive packets. Finally, make it clear where families can go with their questions. (Ideally, this should be a specific person with a phone number and an email address, not a website or a general office number.)
Engage school leaders as much as possible. In our experience, families were more likely to get through the closure process smoothly when they had support from their current school leaders. When school leaders bought into the idea that the priority should be ensuring that families landed on their feet, families were more likely to take advantage of Navigators’ support and to use the resources that were available. It’s a lot to ask of school leaders who may not support the closure decision itself, but to the extent that they can be enlisted as collaborators in guiding families, families are better off.
4. Bring support directly to families instead of waiting for them to find it.
In New Orleans, the two biggest priorities were getting families to submit their OneApp applications in the main round, when they would maximize their chances of getting a seat of their choice, and listing multiple options on those applications. On the whole, our approach worked well: More than 90 percent of displaced families in the 2017 and 2018 school years submitted their OneApp applications in the main round, and they listed an average of four schools per family.
But some strategies worked better than others. Phone and text outreach tended to work best, as did showing up at existing school events and making support directly available there, without requiring families to go out of their way. When we or OPSB created events for the express purpose of giving families support — for example, inviting families to get a free meal at McDonald’s and get OneApp support at the same time — they tended to be poorly attended. For us, the message was not that families didn’t want guidance, or that they weren’t engaged with the process; it was simply that we were more helpful when we weren’t another item to their busy to-do lists.
Don’t wait for families to ask for help. Some of the most successful strategies were those that brought the application process directly to parents: home visits, phone calls where we could actually take parents’ information down in real time and fill out the forms for them, and sending home personalized applications in students’ backpacks on multiple occasions. School choice packets proved useful tools for giving parents a lot of previously disparate information about deadlines and forms, all in one place.
Tie the application process to already existing school events. Parent-teacher conferences, band practices or performances, and athletic events are all good places to catch families that don’t require them to add another item to their calendar. Consider having dedicated staff available to answer questions about the school enrollment process at these events — and having application forms available for filling out right then and there. When we tried offering special events specifically for OneApp support, we saw weaker results.
Regularly update contact information. It sounds obvious, but giving parents clear and accessible information about school closures is impossible without current contact information. In some of the schools we supported, nearly half of the phone numbers on file were no longer current. With numbers, email addresses, and mailing addresses frequently changing, schools need a system in place to regularly update contact information. This might mean asking all families for any new details every quarter, or even doing so an on-going basis, by asking for updated contact information on daily sign-in sheets. Teachers often have access to contact information that isn’t necessarily what’s on the forms sitting in the school office, and older students can be asked to verify phone numbers. Parents should also be able to opt into modes of contact that are best for them — like text or email — so outreach from school is most likely to get to the right place.
Continue support for families and students when they arrive in welcoming schools. While this was beyond the support we were able to provide directly, experience shows us that the need for support and guidance doesn’t end when a student is granted a seat in a new school. Welcoming schools should have a plan in place for transitioning new students smoothly, communicating with parents, and creating an atmosphere that makes families feel connected to their new school community. Students coming from closing schools will have been — almost by definition — underserved academically by their previous schools. So welcoming schools should have a plan to quickly assess new students’ academic and social-emotional needs, and to put supports in place to meet those. Tools like Getting to Know My Child forms may be helpful for making sure welcoming schools have more than just grades and test scores to help them get to know their new community members.
Results: What Happened in New Orleans?
When Tyra Wilson heard that Nelson was closing, she knew where she wanted to send her daughter instead: Arthur Ashe Elementary.
In fact, Ashe — which was also close to home and boasted solid academics, arts, athletics, and extracurriculars — was Wilson’s first choice to begin with. But because the school doesn’t offer pre-K, she had opted to place her daughter in Nelson. Later, she was still enticed by what Ashe had to offer, but Ty’Viana was doing well at Nelson by that point. “I chose not to move my baby, because I didn’t want to interrupt everything.”
In April, with the end of her daughter’s final year at Nelson in sight, Tyra Wilson got the news: Ty’Viana had been accepted at Arthur Ashe.
When that interruption was forced by the school’s closure, it was an easy decision to list Arthur Ashe first in Ty’Viana’s OneApp application. In April, with the end of her daughter’s final year at Nelson in sight, Wilson got the news: Ty’Viana had been accepted at Arthur Ashe. The move would mean an upgrade of two letter grades — from Nelson, with a persistent F rating, to Ashe, a solid C school that was also recommended by EdNavigator based on other families’ experiences.
“It was a relief for me,” Wilson says. “And Ty’Viana is very excited to be going to Arthur Ashe.” Wilson wonders if Arthur Ashe will be a more challenging school, considering that it’s higher-rated than Nelson. But she isn’t worried about her daughter’s ability to thrive there. “I have faith in my baby. I know she’ll do well.”
In exchange for the disruption in the middle of her daughter’s elementary years, Tyra Wilson got what she deserved out of the closure process: an educational upgrade for her child. For many others in New Orleans, the news was similarly good. Nine in 10 students from closing schools were given a placement in a school they listed in OneApp. The vast majority — 93 percent of those coming from schools with D-F ratings — were awarded seats in a school with a higher state letter grade than their previous school, and almost two-thirds got the opportunity to attend a school that is at least two letter grades better. Over a third gained a spot in a school recommended by EdNavigator. And while seats in New Orleans’ highest performing schools remained limited, one year later, many families from our first cohort of school closures feel satisfied with where their children ended up: About 62 percent say their children’s new school is better or much better than their previous one.***
The vast majority — 93 percent of those coming from schools with D-F ratings — were awarded seats in a school with a higher state letter grade than their previous school, and almost two-thirds got the opportunity to attend a school that is at least two letter grades better.
Survey responses from families also suggest that they felt supported through the difficult process. Reflecting on their experience a year later, 68 percent of families whose schools closed in the 2017–18 school year reported feeling that they had the help they needed to choose a new school. Of course, not every family’s experience is positive. Even with supports in place, many families still found themselves hurt and disappointed. And we saw many frustrations — with the timing and clarity of communications; with the reliance on submitting OneApp forms online, requiring a certain level of access and computer literacy; with the lack of explanation for how closure decisions were made; with students’ subsequent school placements; and more.
Two years in, we’re clearer than ever on one thing: School closures are painful for everyone — families, educators, communities. In some ways, that may be inevitable. After all, there’s no way to make the process easy, even with the best intentions. It’s worth noting that closure decisions are far from easy for school system administrators, who are juggling multiple priorities and trying to meet often divergent needs. But school closures are and will continue to be necessary at times, for various reasons.
With more intentional support and better execution of those supports, we’re optimistic that families can have a better experience — and better outcomes for their kids. A more thoughtful, respectful, and proactive approach can ease the hardship of the process, even in relatively small ways, and result in more students landing in better schools.
At times, it can seem that closure decisions are about anything but students and families; they’re about budgets, buildings, head counts, data. Those things are necessary considerations. But when school systems give families the support they need, the benefit is twofold: School systems have more satisfied customers, and families — critically — are more likely to get the upgrades they so deserve.
***Note that our sample size is small (n=55). We believe these survey results are valuable for identifying some early trends, but more data is needed to draw larger conclusions.
Disclosure: EdNavigator was hired by Orleans Parish School Board to support families through school closures in 2017 and 2018. OPSB retained no control over the guidance EdNavigator provided to families, nor did they retain editorial control over this report.