Uphill Both Ways

Why getting to school has gotten harder for kids in the Big Easy.
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Why getting to school has gotten harder for kids in the Big Easy.

At 5:15 a.m., it is easy to spot the Jones household on its quiet residential block. In the darkness of this December morning, it’s the only place with the lights on.

Renata Jones and her three kids live in the Westbank area of New Orleans, across the Mississippi River from the bright lights of the French Quarter, where many of the bars are still serving drinks at this hour.

Although the school day for Renata Jones’ youngest son, Kai, age seven, will not begin until nearly 8 a.m., his daily trip to Lafayette Academy, the pre-K-through- eighth-grade charter school that he attends on the opposite side of the city, takes an hour, and the bus is often late.

Inside the house, Kai, a spindly little boy, comes down the stairs from his room in a trance, grumpy and mute. “It’s always a fight,” says his mother, who works as a registration coordinator in the radiology department of a local hospital. She manages to dress him in his embroidered-polo-and-khakis uniform without a complaint. “He doesn’t understand why he can’t get up when the rest of the kids do.”

The chronic absenteeism rate among students from kindergarten to third grade in New Orleans is 16.2 percent—about 60 percent higher than the national average.

Renata is an old hand at this routine, having perfected it with her older son, Ronjaé, 16, and her daughter, Amya, 14. She sent them to Lafayette Academy after years of severe misgivings about Paul B. Habans Elementary, a nearby but consistently low-performing school that last year received an F ranking from the state of Louisiana.

“They weren’t learning anything,” Jones says. “When I took my children out of Habans, I was just like, ‘I’m so gone.’ It was such a disappointment.” Because of changes to the New Orleans school system over the last decade, Jones and her kids were able to “vote with their feet”—as school-choice advocates are fond of saying—and leave a failing school. What they didn’t expect was how far away that vote would take them.

Last year, New Orleans became home to the first school district in the nation made up entirely of charter schools. The effects of this transformation have been dramatic, complex, and heavily debated, but one of the more straightforward consequences is that kids simply travel much farther than they once did to get to school.

In a city where schools have lost virtually all connection to their students’ neighborhoods, 25 percent of all New Orleans students, including Kai, live five miles or more away from their school, according to the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, an organization at Tulane University that examines local school reform. That’s distance as the crow flies, which doesn’t take into account the vagaries of urban density, road conditions, traffic, and bus routes that make frequent stops to pick up students along the way.

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

Before Hurricane Katrina, in 2004, 47 percent of public school students attended the school nearest to their home. Seven years later, only 14 percent did so.

The more complicated logistics can wreak havoc on families, says Doug Harris, the director of the Education Research Alliance. “If you go to a neighborhood school, then it’s not as big a deal if you miss the bus,” Harris says. But with the greater distances involved today, the stakes are higher. “For lower-income residents—who are less likely to have a car, for instance—if you miss the bus, then you’re sunk.”

One worry among some local education researchers and activists is that longer commutes might exacerbate another big problem in New Orleans: chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school each year. The chronic absenteeism rate among students from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade in New Orleans is 16.2 percent. Chronic absenteeism is closely watched by education experts because it is a key predictor of future dropout rates, academic struggles, and contact with the criminal justice system.

No one has specifically studied the relationship between commute times and absenteeism in New Orleans, so it’s too soon to draw a clear connection. And it’s fair to say that chronic absenteeism arises from a host of issues—poverty, poor health, poor school quality—that have been endemic to the city since long before the switch to charters. “This is not unique to New Orleans,” says Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the city’s largest school district. “Other cities wrestle with these problems every day.” But it’s hard to imagine how longer commute times and complicated logistics wouldn’t add to the strain.

Before Hurricane Katrina, 47 percent of New Orleans public school students attended the school nearest to their home. Now only 14 percent do so.

For Renata Jones, perhaps the cruelest irony is that the best school for Kai may be right around the corner. Alice M. Harte Charter School, an open-enrollment institution that received an A rating last year, is about a mile from the Jones household, but Renata’s efforts to get Kai enrolled there have been unsuccessful, just as they were with Ronjaé and Amya. Admissions at A-rated schools like Harte are hugely competitive.

Another bitter coincidence is that Jones herself attended Habans as a child. Back then, Habans “was totally different,” Jones says. “The parents were more involved. The teachers were more involved.” It was a solid school that was close to home. Jones, who grew up in the same house where she lives now, walked there in the mornings with her grandfather.

Renata is going to try to enroll Kai at Harte again this year. If he gets in, Renata will be able to walk him to school in the morning, maybe even after sunrise, just as her grandfather once did with her. But given the long odds, she doesn’t hold out much hope.

Kai, for his part, just seems to want some more sleep. After getting dressed, he manages to evade his mother for a few moments and curls up on a couch in the living room. His brother, with a look of sympathy and practiced annoyance, won’t give him a chance. “Kai, don’t even try that right now,” says Ronjaé, who is himself curled up on another couch with a blanket, trying to fend off the start of the day.

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