Schools
 

Mahalia Jackson Elementary is one step away from closing at the end of the school year

An Orleans Parish School Board committee voted Tuesday to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, one of the city’s four remaining direct-run schools.

The committee also voted to hand the facility over to Dryades YMCA, which plans to relocate some students from its nearby charter school.

Board member Ben Kleban said the decisions will “address sustainability issues at Mahalia Jackson Elementary but also address overcapacity issues at the Y.”

If the full school board approves the committee’s decisions — it meets Thursday — it would be the final chapter in a rocky couple of years for Mahalia Jackson.

Last year the Central City school, which serves pre-kindergarten through sixth grades, 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.

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 in an interview, 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.

“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 YMCA has been in that community since 1905 and we’re not going anywhere,” Phillips said at the board meeting.

No one else from the public spoke up about closing the school and handing the building to the Y.

If the school board affirms Tuesday’s decisions, Mahalia Jackson students could get priority in choosing 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. 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 who attend 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.”

The vote comes as the Orleans Parish School Board prepares to take back all schools run by the state’s all-charter Recovery School District. If Mahalia Jackson closes, just three traditional schools would remain in the city.

The principals of two of those schools — Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology and Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School —  submitted applications to convert them to charters. Such schools receive public funds, but they’re privately run and allowed to make their own decisions as long as they meet certain benchmarks.

At the meeting Tuesday, school district staff told board members that an independent evaluator has recommended denying both applications. The superintendent will announce his recommendation next month.

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