How One NOLA School Got More Kids into College by Opening Its Doors

Graduation at Edna Karr High School, May 20. Photo: Andre Perry

This summer for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, reporters, scholars and activists will swarm to New Orleans, like termites searching for the light, seeking evidence that will tell if our educational system is better than it was before the storm. In anticipation, activists on all sides are putting their best faces forward, but what proofs are reliable and replicable? What are real bellwethers of change?

Because of what I learned while preparing for a graduation speech that I gave on May 20th, when people ask me for signs of New Orleans success I will now tell them to go to Edna Karr High School. Edna Karr proves that quality doesn’t have to come from exclusivity – isn’t school-based segregation the real source of our problems?

If you listen to people talk about education pre-Katrina in New Orleans, you’d think no public schools were successful. The irony is that cities like New Orleans have always known how to get students to and through college. More often than not, college-eligible students come out of selective admissions high schools (both public and private).

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For decades, selective admissions, test-in public high schools in New Orleans like Eleanor McMain, Ben Franklin, McDonogh 35 and Edna Karr produced highly successful collegians who would become the gentry of New Orleans. For instance in 2003, only selective admissions, private or parochial institutions in New Orleans schools could say that more than a third of its students were eligible for the state’s merit scholarship, the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship for Students (or TOPS). In 2003, Edna Karr was one of those selective schools.

An aside – Not only are exclusive schools good at sending their kind of students to college, we’ve created incentives to maintain that exclusivity.

Let’s be honest. Educators know how to effectively generate collegians through selectivity. Districts and cities across the country create magnet, test-in schools, charge tuition, manufacture new attendance zones and do other un-public things to essentially teach the kids feel are ready.

Another aside – is it really education when you only teach the kids who are “ready to learn.”

But students who don’t get VIP passes to schools aren’t going to college. As a state, Louisiana ranks second to last in the percentage of its adult population who has associate or bachelor’s degrees. Specifically, only 19 percent – 1 in 5 – of all blacks in Louisiana have a college degree compared to 47 percent of Asians and 33 percent of whites.

So what kind of proof should people look for to see if New Orleans has truly changed for the better? Looking at successful, selective schools wouldn’t tell America anything new. Examining open enrollment schools would offer better insight. Over the last ten years, New Orleans parents, teachers, leaders and students have almost cut the number of failing schools in half (64 percent in ’04 to 32 percent in ’14). The graduation rate is up and the dropout rate is down. The number of first time freshmen enrolled in college has more than doubled. And schools are actually competing for bragging rights as to who is getting the most scholarship money.

But has New Orleans changed the practice of school exclusivity, which helped get us in the mess in the first place? In this regard, Edna Karr can teach the education community that growth need not come from exclusivity.

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When groups of people are educated in isolation, schools help maintain the stereotypes and racial attitudes that led to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Reniesha McBride, Freddie Gray and an unrecognized number of others. How we are perceived can mean the difference between life and death. Educational isolation certainly can affect how we fund, reform and teach in public schools.

While there are noted exceptions, many of New Orleans improved, non-selective schools have not become economically or racially diverse. Critics have said charter schools have to re-segregate schools. Likewise, most private school parents still don’t consider sending their children to public schools. Remember, New Orleans is a choice district, meaning attendance zone are mostly non-existent (some New Orleans schools under the Orleans Parish School Board still have zones including Karr). Parents can enroll in any school. Private school families are saying no to public schools. Needless to say, the income divide is flagrantly apparent in public schools – approximately 85 percent of public school students in New Orleans qualify for free and reduced lunch.

So when the world comes to New Orleans for the 10th anniversary, observers shouldn’t simply look for evidence that poor black and brown children can go to college. We already know all children can learn. Those who will crash our anniversary commemorations should look for formerly selective or exclusive schools that opened up their doors to all children and still succeeded in preparing them for college.

In 2005 in the aftermath of the storm, the Algiers Charter School Association made a critical decision that observers should pay closer attention to. One of its member schools, Edna Karr, then a highly successful selective admissions institution, decided to remove its admissions test and open its doors to all academic levels.

Again, the old Edna Karr by New Orleans standards effectively prepared its students for college. Sixty-eight percent of the ’04 class entered college. However, in 2014, 77 percent of Karr graduates enrolled in college (65 percent of those in four-year schools). In many ways, Edna Karr has improved since it became an open enrollment school. This year’s outcomes accentuate the point. There are other signs that say it’s an inclusive college preparatory school:

  • 97 percent of ninth graders from four years prior graduated on time according to state data.
  • 100 percent of seniors graduated on time (for the second year in a row).
  • 97 percent have been accepted into college, 70 percent – 4 year, 27 percent – two year, 3 percent will enlist in the armed services.
  • Karr students received 4.7 million dollars in scholarships, an average of over $20,000 per student (up from last year and without TOPS).
  • Karr college acceptances include but not limited to: Wesleyan University, Grinnell College, American University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, LSU, Xavier University of LA, Dillard University, Tulane University.
  • The class of 2015 has seen two Track Championships, one Football Championship, and six state runner-ups in track and football.

We shouldn’t be surprised that black children succeed. All kids can learn. We should be surprised a school took a “risk” to open its doors to all students. Everyone achieves at Karr not just the students who attain a score on an entrance exam, or live in great neighborhood.

Seeing exclusive schools open their doors is the primary evidence we need.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).