One of the first things Patrick Dobard, the new superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District, did away with was the antiquated, cumbersome and inefficient school placement system which used to be handled by each individual school. Starting this year, all students who have submitted a list of 8 school choices indicating where they’d like to enroll next year, ranked by preference, will be a assigned a spot by a centralized computer system which will combine placement rules such as giving preference to applicants n the school’s immediate neighborhood, with a randomization process to make its decisions.
For parents, there are some key ideas to keep in mind. The experts who developed the algorithm — folks from Duke, Harvard and MIT — say there is no way to game the system. If what you really want is a seat at KIPP Renaissance High School, you should not rank Sci Academy first, thinking that you’re more likely to get your second choice. Ranking KIPP as your top choice gives you your best shot at getting in.
There’s also no way to lose a seat that your child already has. If a second-grader at School A applies for a transfer to School B and doesn’t win a spot, he will automatically remain where he is.
The designers of the system allow that while most students will get placed in a school from the top half of their list, there will be a tiny minority that won’t get a spot in any of the 8 schools they select. Each such case will be individually handled by district administrators, who will follow specific guidelines laid out by the district heads. Furthermore, parents who are unhappy with their placement have an option to appeal the decision directly to the district.
The centralized enrollment rollout is part of the plan to introduce more choice into the system that has been struggling since Hurricane Katrina, and where most schools are now being operated by non-profits with latitude to set their own policies, write their own curriculum and full discretion over staffing. Until this year, those schools also handled their own enrollment.
The new system will also give people who are studying New Orleans’ revolutionary experiment an new opportunity to judge its success.
It will also provide a trove of new data, depending on what the district makes public, on how the New Orleans experiment with choice and charter schools is playing out. Which schools are the most popular? Does popularity track with academic performance? Do parents favor proximity to a certain school over test scores? How often do students transfer from one school to another? For the first time, data to help answer these questions will reside on a single computer.