Schools
 

Founding principal returns to Mahalia Jackson after a year away, but closure remains on the table

After a tumultuous year at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, the Orleans Parish school district is bringing families some stability by reassigning founding principal Lakeysha London.

“This is like a dream come true because Ms. London was the foundation of that school since it started,” said parent Kia Barnes.

Grandparent Marie Thompson is happy, too. But she remains concerned about the school’s future after the superintendent recommended closing it next spring.

“Will it keep the school open?” Thompson asked. “I doubt it.”

Mahalia Jackson families have dealt with a lot lately.

London left a year ago. Then a new charter group tried to take over the school.

But after the group received a poor review, the district quietly decided to limit new enrollees at Mahalia Jackson to siblings of current students.

About a week later, Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced his intention to shutter the school after the 2017-18 school year. A school board committee supported him, but the full board deferred a decision when parents showed up to protest.

Lewis announced last month London would return to run the school she built. He has yet to announce what will happen to the school after next year.

“I’m just so happy for Ms. London to be back,” Barnes said. “This is where she needs to be.”

Thompson and her husband frequently volunteer at the school, which their two grandchildren have attended since kindergarten.

“She knows every single one of those kids’ names,” Thompson said of London.

London and a district spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Community center grows

Mahalia Jackson opened to 75 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students in 2010.

Barnes’ son was in that class. He will be in the school’s inaugural sixth grade class this fall. His youngest sister could be in the last kindergarten class.

The 275-student school shares its Jackson Street campus with a branch of the New Orleans Public Library, a health clinic and a preschool program.

A cooperative endeavor agreement signed in 2011 by the city and the school board said the project would “help revitalize the Central City community by providing a school for the children and programs and services to the community at large.”

Nearly every year, the school added students and grades.

Thompson said the school thrived under London. “Everything was positive then.”

Barnes said the principal was open and helpful, and she fostered an environment that balanced academics and fun. “I think it was very effective,” she said. “She really made it feel like our kids were her kids.”

But then London was transferred to Eleanor McMain Secondary School at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

London’s replacement left last fall. The district moved Litouri Smith from the central office to oversee the school.

“It was not the same this year since she left,” Barnes said.

From chartering to potential closure

The superintendent and district officials held several meetings at the school this year. Two revealed big plans in the works.

In January, Lewis told parents the school could become a charter. A principal-led group had applied to convert the district’s remaining traditional schools to charters. The group included London in her role at McMain and Smith in his at Mahalia Jackson.

In April, Lewis once again gathered parents.

Thompson recalled getting the letter announcing the meeting. “We’re thinking he’s going to talk about a charter school. He said, ‘Well, I have some bad news.’”

Parents were caught off-guard when he said he wanted to close Mahalia Jackson.

Lewis and other district officials cited decreasing enrollment as a factor. Though total enrollment has grown each year, the growth rate has slowed.

Lewis met with parents twice in May to further explain his reasoning.

He said the growing school no longer fit into its building, which was meant to be shared with other organizations, and it didn’t fit into the district’s wider plans. Lewis described his plan as a return to the building’s “original intent”: a community center and preschool.

He had intended to expand Mahalia Jackson to sixth grade to complement nearby Eleanor McMain Secondary School. But now InspireNOLA, McMain’s new charter operator, plans to phase out its seventh and eighth grades.

Lewis’ team has asked other elementary schools, upon their charter renewals, to add seventh and eighth grades to feed into the city’s high schools.

At one of those Mahalia Jackson meetings, parents said London’s absence had hurt.

The school had a strong sense of community, one parent said. “It’s just that it was unraveled last year when you took Lakeysha.”

One parent at the meeting contended enrollment only slowed after London left. The school fell 10 percent short of its enrollment goal last fall.

Lewis responded that the students would have been enrolled before London moved.

What’s next?

Thompson said families got a letter from Smith announcing London’s return. Her main concern is still the fate of the school.

“I’m glad she’s back,” Thompson said. “But will it really do any good? That’s my thing.”

Lewis is expected to present options for the school program and building at the board’s June 15 meetings.

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