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In New Orleans, The Scramble For The Right Fit

In New Orleans, advertisements for charter schools — and for the annual Schools Expo — appear on billboards and bus stops.

It's a Saturday morning, and school marching bands are playing for a crowd. But they're not in a Mardi Gras parade. They're in the Superdome, where 120 schools are set up at long tables, putting their best faces forward and trying to recruit families.

One gives on-the-spot instrument lessons, another is showing off it's step team.

In the city's choice system, there are no more automatic neighborhood schools. And so this annual Schools Expo in February offers families a chance to sample the flavors before making their selections.

This month, they'll find out whether they got their top picks.

Families apply through OneApp, the city's central enrollment process. They rank their top eight choices, and a computer algorithm matches students with schools.

It's a complicated process. A recent study found many families here don't choose schools based solely – or even primarily – on academic letter grades. Factors like distance or extracurriculars can be just as important.

For Tye Davis, academics are key. "I'm changing schools for two of my kids," she says. "So I came out here just to see, you know, the location, the academic grades that the school gets, and the curriculum that they offer."

But, she adds, there's another big factor as well: She wants a school closer to home. Her 9-year-old daughter spends over an hour each way on the school bus. Which doesn't leave time for much of anything once she gets home at night.

"She does homework, she eats and go to bed," Davis says.

Javanti Coleman is at the expo with her two young daughters, who are dressed in matching pink and yellow plaid shirts.

One of her biggest concerns is bullying.

"Because that's one of the issues that I face today is that my kid get bullied a lot," explains Coleman. "So I'm looking to put her in a better school that have a hold, control on bullying and things of that nature."

Finding a school that meets all of a family's needs can take more work than just attending the expo. That's because in the choice system, schools are basically marketing.

"And in that environment there's a lot of incentive for schools to put forward their best, sort of shiniest image of themselves," explains Audrey Stewart, a public school parent and co-author of the Parents' Guide, an independent guidebook with details about every public school. "They're competing for kids."

Those instrument demos and step performances? That's information, Stewart says, but it's also hype. "It also leaves parents having a hard time understanding day to day what's going on in a school."

The Parents' Guide is filled with numbers like class size and suspension rates. Stewart says this information offers a fuller picture. Especially given that many charter schools here follow a similar model: highly structured, with a heavy focus on testing.

The guide also includes practical information, like whether a school offers after-care or transportation.

"I think one of the things that surprised me was how many families wanted to know the school uniform colors," says Rebeccah Fleming, a school choice advisor with the Recovery School District. She helps families navigate the enrollment process. Hidden costs – like paying for a new uniform – matter, she says, especially in low income households. "So knowing what the school uniform colors were, what they could work with that they already head, seemed to be a big concern."

Of course, many families are vying for limited spots at the most highly regarded, high performing schools. Some of those have admissions requirements. Lashonda Jones has studied the grades the state has given some schools at the Expo, and isn't impressed.

"They was all maybe like a C or a D, and some was F," she said. "And a lot of them are saying, 'Oh well, we were C+ almost a B." For Jones, that's not good enough. "I don't think 'almost,' it doesn't count to me. Either you there or you not.

She wants to send her daughter to Ben Franklin High School. But that's a school with admissions criteria and its own application. Is she excited about her backup options?

"No," she says, laughing, "not at all."

Copyright 2015 WWNO-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wwno.org.

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