Carrie Fisher scurries behind her kids around the backyard of their Carollton neighborhood home. She picks up discarded toys and issues compliments when Laura, 6, and Charles, 4, do tricks on the swings, and warnings when the tricks start to look too much like stunts.
The children’s laughter mixes with the evening call of the peacock that often camps out just beyond the Fishers’ privacy fence. With full rosy cheeks, the kids are miniature images of their mother, a New Orleans native who grew up in the city’s nearby Uptown neighborhood.
And like what many children of the city’s white middle-class families have done for decades, she went to private school.
“I think people felt like it was their only choice to choose a private school for a decent education,” said Fisher, who is 41.
But in the post-Katrina schooling landscape, Fisher and her husband are starting to see potential in New Orleans’ public schools. Laura, who is entering 1st grade, is a student at Bricolage Academy, a charter school.
The Fishers are part of what some education leaders and researchers think might be a coming sea change in New Orleans: that as the city’s public schools improve, they will entice middle-class families that for decades clustered in private schools. But attracting them will take more than rising test scores and college-acceptance rates. Offering a wider variety of K-12 experiences—in the vein of boutique, independent schools—is what many parents will be seeking.
And that’s not what many of the well-established charter schools here offer. Most are affiliated with networks that are built around the “no excuses” college-prep model.
But Fisher is wary of networks, or as she calls them “franchise schools,” that she sees as catering exclusively to low-income families—schools that rely on strict codes of conduct and Teach For America educators. She doesn’t agree that schools should serve a single demographic.
“You just want to keep your low-income, at-risk kids sequestered in your school and not try to mix up your student pool?” she says.
Not Enough ‘Good’ Choices
Fisher’s sentences often end in a question mark—a slight uptick in her voice—as if she’s not quite settled on what she thinks about public education in New Orleans.
There’s more people who want to go to public school than good public schools exist. CARRIE FISHER, Parent
When Katrina hit, Fisher and her husband were newlyweds. They had just bought their home in Carrollton, where the Mississippi River starts to bend south to cup the city. Though they had looked for homes near one of the city’s best public schools, they were priced out. They liked Carrollton and figured they could move once their future children reached school age.
After a brief evacuation to Mississippi, the couple returned and moved into the French Quarter hotel where Nelson Fisher worked. Their home had been inundated with water, so they settled into a FEMA trailer with their Doberman and two cats while they rebuilt. They moved back in on the one-year anniversary of the storm.
There was no way the Fishers could have predicted the upheaval to come in the city’s school system by the time their first-born was approaching kindergarten. At first, Fisher was overwhelmed by the complexity of an all-choice system, but with a flexible job as a technical writer at Tulane University and a husband at home in the evenings to watch the kids, she etched out time to research schools and attend open houses.
But Fisher was frustrated that she found so few elementary schools—out of roughly 50—that she liked. Just three met her baseline criteria: They weren’t part of a charter network. They didn’t use selective admissions. And they struck her as academically sound.
“There’s more people who want to go to public school than good public schools exist,” she says.
To get her top choice—Bricolage Academy—she went through all three rounds of the city’s centralized OneApp application system.
If they were not happy with their final assignment, the Fishers knew they could scrounge the money together to send Laura to one of the city’s many private schools.
Nearly 18,000 students from both inside and outside the city attend private school in New Orleans now, compared to 44,000 enrolled in its public schools.
In the aftermath of the storm, private schools didn’t experience the same levels of disruption and population loss as their public school counterparts. But in more recent years, the pace of enrollment growth in private education has been slower than in the city’s public schools, especially among white families, according to Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.
That expanding interest in public schools might be explained, in part, by some new types of charters opening.
Next Wave of Charters?
Late last spring at Bricolage Academy, Erin Densen, a volunteer kindergarten teacher, kneels down eye level with a boy sitting at a tiny desk. His blue portfolio of schoolwork is off to one side.
“Paul, I feel worried that your table doesn’t have pens out,” she says, her words melodic and over-enunciated.
Paul and his classmates are working on writing opinions.
A second teacher winds through the classroom of about 20 children. The walls are papered with pupils’ artwork and posters with the alphabet.
The school, which opened in 2013, is housed in the back of Touro Synagogue in the Uptown neighborhood, an area filled with grand homes insulated by a lush canopy of live oak trees, ferns, and Spanish moss.
The school draws students from all over the city and has a rare mix of children from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. It represents what may become the next wave of charter schooling in New Orleans.
Bricolage was founded by middle-class parents who were deeply dissatisfied with the open-enrollment public school options in the city.
“Among the schools that were truly A grade, even high-performing B schools, the majority of the ones that we were interested in applying to were all selective admission,” says Josh Densen, 36, Bricolage’s founder and principal.
While he and his wife sent their daughter to a selective-admissions school, he was dismayed that there weren’t other choices. “The purpose and promise of public education, it’s really to provide equity of opportunity,” he says. “There were no schools [in 2011] that were open enrollment, socioeconomically diverse, and academically excellent.”
To gauge whether other parents felt the same, and to get a sense of what they were actually looking for in a school, Densen held informal focus groups in living rooms, libraries, and community centers across the city.
“I heard ‘diversity’ a lot, and I heard ‘keeping up with the changing world’ a lot,” he says. The answer, he decided, was opening a new kind of school.
Taking inspiration from the pop-up restaurant trend, Densen, a former teacher, held a one-day pop-up school at the Children’s Museum to pilot some of his ideas around bringing together students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and trying out different methods. From there, he started an eight-week after-school program at an established charter to further refine the school model, recruiting a mix of students from private schools, selective-admissions schools, and public charters.
Now, Bricolage is steadily growing and will begin the new school year in a larger, but still-temporary space—a former Roman Catholic school. Three years from now, Bricolage will move into a permanent home, the John McDonogh High School building—a massive, brick campus on Esplanade Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
The announcement that education officials were awarding Bricolage the McDonogh building didn’t come without protest, as few things in New Orleans do. There was strong sentiment that this new charter hopscotched over other schools and that an upstart didn’t deserve this prized piece of education real estate.
Bricolage’s swift ascent is one that a New Orleans-based organization called 4.0 Schools hopes to replicate. “There’s not enough choice in the system to bring back middle-class families—black and white—to the system,” says the organization’s founder, Matt Candler.
Charter Networks Rule
Networks dominate in New Orleans, in part because many were heavily recruited to come to the city in the first few years after the hurricane. Candler himself played a key role in that recruitment as the head of New Schools for New Orleans, an influential nonprofit that raises money to help get new schools off the ground. Currently, 60 percent of New Orleans students attend schools run by one of 12 networks, or charter-management organizations, according to the Cowen Institute.
There are upsides to the charter school networks, especially in a city with two bare-bones governing authorities still hashing out what exactly their roles should be in providing oversight and support services.
It’s easier and cheaper for network-aligned schools to provide special education services, teacher training, and transportation—a major budget buster for many of the city’s charters. “We are able to look at the number of kids that we’re busing across the city and get a more efficient contract with the bus company,” says Rhonda Aluise, the executive director of KIPP New Orleans Schools.
KIPP New Orleans, which is part of the nation’s largest charter network, has 10 schools and 4,000 students—roughly 8 percent of the public school student population in the city, Aluise says.
Funders and authorizers are often risk adverse, preferring to back well-established schools that want to expand and open more campuses, Candler says.
But diversifying the city’s education options will require coming up with new ways to start schools. Bricolage’s approach, Candler believes, offers one promising solution, and authorizers are more likely to take a chance on a model—and school founder—that’s been tested, albeit on a smaller scale.
“You’re asking new school founders something that even Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to do in the early stages of Facebook,” says Candler. “Zuckerberg didn’t go from zero to $5 million in revenue with a check from the government like any charter school founder has to do—think about how crazy that is.”
Carrie Fisher’s feelings toward New Orleans’ school choice model have warmed considerably over time, now that the hours of research, school visits, and OneApp applications are behind her, and she’s happy with her daughter’s school.
With Laura already at Bricolage, her son Charles is virtually guaranteed a spot in the school once he reaches kindergarten.
But when Fisher considers the education ecosystem as a whole, she’s still conflicted.
“I would say growing up and planning my family, public school wasn’t 100 percent given. I don’t feel entitled to a public school system,” she says. “I feel like I’m taking a spot from someone who is lower income than me, so I have a skewed view of public education, growing up in New Orleans, but maybe that’s changing.”