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School board considers closing Mahalia Jackson school, offering building to Dryades YMCA

An Orleans Parish School Board committee will vote Tuesday on closing one of its four remaining direct-run schools and handing the facility over to Dryades YMCA, which plans to relocate some students from its nearby charter school. (Update, Nov. 14: The committee voted unanimously for both proposals.)

If the full school board approves the committee’s decisions, it would be the final chapter in a rocky couple of years for Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, a pre-kindergarten through 6th grade school in Central City.

Last year, Mahalia Jackson was part of a push to turn the few remaining traditional schools in New Orleans into charters. When that fell through, Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced he wanted to close it. In April, a school board committee agreed, but the full board did not, which put the decision on hold.

Dryades YMCA plans to shift its lower grades at James M. Singleton Charter School to the Mahalia Jackson site, where it would maintain the current site partnerships. That’s in line with what Lewis has said he wants.

Mahalia Jackson, which serves pre-kindergarten through sixth grades, is one of four remaining schools operated directly by the school district; the rest are charters.

In September, the school district announced it was looking for someone to operate the facility, which also houses a health clinic, a preschool program and a library branch. Dryades YMCA was the only applicant.

Dryades YMCA President and CEO Gregory Phillips said his group learned of the superintendent’s recommendation to close the school this spring and began attending the school district’s community meetings.

“It was just a natural fit,” he said, given that the YMCA has other educational programs and many Mahalia Jackson students already attend programs there.

“We could operate the pre-k to 3 over there, which is in line with the original concept that the school system wanted,” Phillips said. Higher grade levels at Singleton would remain at the Dryades YMCA, about eight blocks away in Central City.

“We have about 480 kids here at this site and the capacity over there is about 300,” Phillips said.

Singleton has a C grade. Mahalia Jackson fell from a C to a D this year.

The full school board, which meets Thursday, must ratify the committee’s decisions.

If the school board closes Mahalia Jackson, its students could receive priority to choose another school in the city’s centralized lottery system, called EnrollNOLA. Gabriella Fighetti, who oversees EnrollNOLA, said that decision will be made after the board votes.

“Our general practice is to give students that are being displaced closing-school priority,” she said in an email. But it’s unclear how that would play out in this case given that the new school would serve some of the grades now at Mahalia Jackson.

Marie Thompson said she is looking for other schools for her two grandkids at Mahalia Jackson. “They done took us through too much,” Thompson said.

“I’m just sorry the school is closing,” she said. After a moment, she added, “As long as they keep it open for the babies, it’s OK.”

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