NEW ORLEANS - The Jamaican boy was having a rough adjustment to his new school in America, and his frustrated mother was ready to move him.
The second-grader couldn’t understand English and was losing focus. But school leaders didn’t think the boy’s heavy accent required special help.
In Milwaukee and other cities, similar scenarios often result in dissatisfied parents switching their children to new schools, sometimes more than once. The students’ test scores may suffer and the moves increase the churn that haunts many low-performing schools, slowing down the learning of those who switch as well as those who stay put.
But the Jamaican mom received a key intervention: A personal education adviser drafted a letter on her behalf and compelled school operators to conduct a formal observation for special-education services.
The cost to mom: Nothing.
Access to an education adviser was one of the benefits she received as a housekeeper at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street.
A year later, the boy is in the same school, getting regular help from a speech pathologist. His language skills have improved significantly. His grades went up, but now in third grade, he’s struggling with reading.
So Ileana Ortiz, the education adviser, focuses on reading issues when she talks with the mother during their weekly meetings during shift breaks at the Sheraton.
“Mom has grown as an advocate in every meeting we’ve had,” Ortiz said. “She now knows what questions to ask the school about her son’s learning.”
Guidance amid many choices
In New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina wiped out the traditional school district and gave rise to hundreds of independent charter schools, Ortiz is part of a new nonprofit organization that’s helping parents make sense of the city’s complicated education landscape. The budding enterprise, called EdNavigator, aims to fill a critical gap in urban education reform: The dearth of one-on-one guidance for low-income parents.
In a city brimming with school options but devoid of a centralized school system, the help has been welcomed. EdNavigator is only three years old, but 92 percent of parents reported being satisfied with the service.
Leaders of the nonprofit say that they’re working to get more children steadily enrolled in high-performing schools or ones where students improve faster-than-average. They’re also working to minimize the rampant school-switching that’s plagued other cities like Milwaukee, where one in four children change schools during the year. Or Detroit, where about one in three are transient.
“There’s not a lot of movement among our parents, in part because we provide a level of support to choose a school, and a level of accountability once they’re in that school,” said Gary Briggs, who leads the New Orleans-based staff as the “master navigator.”
The nonprofit sustains itself through donations from foundations and payments from businesses that provide the service as an employee benefit. EdNavigator launched in New Orleans in 2015, starting with the hotel industry and branching out to manufacturers and universities. This year, it spread to Boston where so far it has one client, a senior living facility.
“To have someone who understands the education landscape and understands our industry? That’s a win-win,” said Tom Jones, area director of human resources for Starwood properties, which includes the New Orleans Sheraton.
Jones said workers often arrive late or leave early to deal with issues at their children’s schools — from a discipline matter to a parent-teacher conference. When advisers help navigate those issues, employees are happier and less likely to leave, Jones said. Staff turnover is about 25 percent, he said, and he thinks EdNavigator might lower that.
A group of professors at Tulane University are tracking EdNavigator families to see if the assistance improves student attendance, achievement or graduation rates.
Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, an associate professor of education at Seton Hall University, said districts and schools have long failed to provide comprehensive, understandable information to families so they can choose good options.
“Programs like EdNavigator that pair better information with hands-on guidance are a valuable resource,” she said.
She added that focusing on helping parents navigate the system isn't enough; cities also need many more high-performing schools.
"Parents may be choosing lower performing schools not because of limited information about other options, but because those schools are more realistic options for their families given a host of other considerations like proximity, transportation, and convenience," she said.
Inside the workplace
Mardi Gras came early in 2018, and purple, green and gold bunting was already decorating city streets when Gary Briggs, the lead navigator, entered the elegant lobby of the International House one day in January.
He waved to the receptionist and took the elevator to the second floor where he settled into a nook with an armchair and spread out his laptop and papers.
International House became the first hotel to engage EdNavigator two years ago.
That’s when Nicole Ellzey, a housekeeper there with three children, started meeting regularly with Briggs.
“My youngest son was failing math, but I couldn’t leave in the daytime to go and talk with the teacher about it,” Ellzey said. “Gary met with the teacher instead and got my son’s report card. He also got the school to sign my son up for extra math help.”
Briggs manages the other navigators in New Orleans, but still works directly with 12 employees at International House, including Ellzey, who he checked in with that day. Other navigators work with up to 100 families each.
In all, EdNavigator has 12 full-time people offering support to 19 businesses, where more than 4,300 employees are eligible for the advising services.
Briggs, 30, was a natural fit for this work, both in personality and experience. He grew up attending a variety of schools in the city. Back then, before Katrina, most children had to attend their neighborhood schools in the Orleans Parish public school district.
Briggs got into a private high school and then attended Texas Christian University. He returned to the city when Teach for America placed him in a New Orleans middle school, where he taught for four years.
Then, a friend told him about a new adviser service.
“Once they explained the model, I was like, ‘So wait, you’re telling me that employers are going to pay you to provide these type of high-touch services for their employees?’ I’d never heard of anything like it,” Briggs said.
Today, he introduces himself to new parents by explaining that his job is to work for them.
“You’re my boss,” Briggs says.
In the beginning, he'll ask lots of broad questions: What’s most important for me to know about your child? How many different schools are your children in? Is anybody close to completing elementary or middle school? Have you thought about what school you want them to attend next? What are your child’s grades?
He’ll explain that parents must sign a waiver to allow him access to their child’s academic reports. They’ll meet one-on-one at the employee’s workplace, and they can text and share documents at any time over EdNavigator’s secure smartphone app.
On the January day, Briggs was scheduled to meet with a new International House worker who was eager to join the program.
This being New Orleans, the mother and Briggs soon realized they knew each other. He had taught one of her older children in middle school.
Help choosing new schools
After that meeting, Briggs packed up and headed to the J.W. Marriott, where he walked in the service entrance and settled into the employee lounge.
Tamyra Morris, the hotel’s event manager at the time, soon hustled in.
Morris was in the throes of deciding where to enroll her daughter for high school. Like many parents, she wanted to shoot for the highest performing — and therefore most popular — schools, places like Warren Easton and Edna Karr.
She had to apply through the city’s common enrollment system known as OneApp. The online system asks parents to rank their school choices and tracks information about them, such as where they live and where their other children attend school.
The OneApp system matches students with schools based on the parents’ selections and on other factors that aim to level the playing field. For example, the OneApp algorithm gave children attending schools slated to close in 2018 higher priority than others to get their first-choice picks for the 2018-’19 school year.
Before OneApp, the system of school choice in New Orleans after Katrina was fractured and inefficient. Charter schools had their own enrollment deadlines, and some selective schools made application requirements so cumbersome that all but the most motivated parents lost out.
The navigators walk parents through their options.
While meeting with Morris at the J.W. Marriott, Briggs suggested she consider Livingston Collegiate, a newer high school where initial test score results looked strong.
“Get your daughter’s feedback and let me know where you want to rank these schools,” Briggs told Morris as they hunched over his laptop, looking at the Enroll NOLA website.
The site is designed to allow parents to search for and compare school options on a variety of metrics such as performance, location and academic programs. On the same website, parents enter their options through the OneApp portal.
Briggs also suggested that Morris and her daughter attend a school fair that weekend at the Superdome.
Sponsored by the Urban League of Louisiana, the annual Schools Expo featured booths staffed by the leaders of almost all the city’s schools. Morris and her daughter went and met staff from several schools, including Edna Karr, a top choice that hundreds fail to get into every year.
Ultimately, the OneApp system matched Morris’s daughter with Livingston, which she accepted. She is a freshman there this year.