Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced last week he wants to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School. The primary reason: under-enrollment.

Lewis hasn’t granted our requests for interviews, so we don’t know when and how he made this decision.

We do know the school’s enrollment has grown in recent years as it has added grades, according to state records.

For the next school year, Mahalia Jackson was about 30 percent below its target after the initial round of OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system.* That’s partly due to the school district’s decision not to allow any new students who weren’t siblings.

They made that decision on April 3. But they knew since the beginning of March — right after the first round of OneApp closed — how many students would likely be matched to the school next year.

The importance of enrollment wasn’t clear until Wednesday, when parents were told the district wants to close the school at the end of the next academic year.

Since January, Mahalia Jackson has been included in a group of five schools that could be converted to charters next year. If so, New Orleans would be the first city in which every public school is a charter.

The group that wants to run those schools is called ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization. The principals of the schools are all involved with the charter effort and would stay on if ExCEED takes them over.

Four Orleans Parish school district employees have been named to top posts at ExCEED. Their supervisor, Nicolette London, quit her job to become CEO of ExCEED four days before it submitted its application for the schools.

Those close ties between school district employees and ExCEED raise potential conflicts because public employees aren’t allowed to work with an organization if they were involved in transactions with it at their government job. Public employees also must wait two years before doing the same work as a contractor for their former public agency.

The school district dealt with the potential issues by forbidding any employees involved in the ExCEED charter effort from taking part in decisions on its application.

Charter effort gains steam, then hits a rough patch

ExCEED’s effort to take over the schools appeared to be moving forward. Principals sent letters home with students to garner support. At parent meetings in January, Lewis described the benefits of chartering and made comments that appeared to support ExCEED.

“As superintendent, I can’t tell you that Ms. London will be the leader,” he said at one meeting, five weeks before London became CEO.

An independent evaluation of ExCEED’s applications was due March 29. In it, evaluators concluded ExCEED shouldn’t get all five schools. They wrote that ExCEED doesn’t meet standards in each of the critical areas they evaluated: academic, organizational, financial and “evidence of capacity.”

The evaluation specifically questioned the group’s projection of $900,000 in rental income at Mahalia Jackson, which shares space with an early childhood center and a health clinic.

“This is an example of a risky approach to financial management by including such a large revenue amount that is not guaranteed,” they wrote.

The team also said the application for Mahalia Jackson didn’t fit ExCEED’s core focus. The school curriculum was dual-language, while the network focused on the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) model.

School district limits enrollment at Mahalia Jackson

Days after the evaluation came in, school district officials decided to prevent new students from enrolling at the school unless they had a sibling there already.

The Recovery School District, which runs OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system, altered its lottery formula to accommodate that request.

Dominique Ellis, a spokeswoman for the school district, said Orleans Parish school district employees did that because preliminary projections “suggested significant under-enrollment.”

Those enrollment projections had not changed since the week after applications for the first round of OneApp closed on Feb. 24, said Gabriella Fighetti, enrollment director for the Recovery School District.

Parents started submitting their school preferences on Nov. 1. From then until Feb. 24, school district employees received weekly updates on how many applicants had chosen each school, Fighetti said. That helps schools determine if they’re on track to fill their seats.

Ellis confirmed the district received those updates.

She said the school district decided to limit enrollment on April 3.

On March 31, an Orleans Parish school district employee emailed colleagues and staff at the Recovery School District: “Dr. Lewis will ask at the April round of committee/board meetings for the board to consider and approve the decision to close Mahalia Jackson at the close of the 2017-2018 school year. … Dr. Lewis has asked that no communication regarding this decision be made public until he has indicated he is prepared to do so.”

He apparently wasn’t ready until last week. In announcing his recommendation to close the school last week, the school district said Jackson “has persistently low demand from new students and significant year-to-year student instability. Even at full enrollment, the school is predicted to operate at a financial loss due to its size and configuration.”

According to state records, enrollment at the school has increased each year as it has added grades:

  • October 2010: 75 students (pre-kindergarten and kindergarten)
  • October 2011: 95 (pre-k through first grade)
  • October 2012: 109 (pre-k through first grade)
  • October 2013: 148 (pre-k through second grade)
  • October 2014: 215 (pre-k through third grade)
  • October 2015: 260 (pre-k through fourth grade)
  • October 2016: 275 (pre-k through fifth grade)

But next year, the school district estimated next year’s under-enrollment at 20 percent.

Each year, schools set enrollment targets. That number is used to determine how many kids can be matched through OneApp.

Next year, the school district wanted to enroll 388 students at Mahalia Jackson. That includes a new sixth grade. To get there, OneApp recommended offering nearly 100 more seats.

After the decision to limit enrollment, 274 students were matched to Mahalia Jackson. Fewer than five new students were admitted, all siblings of current students, Ellis said.

That’s about 71 percent of the school’s goal.* We don’t know how that compares with other schools after the first round of OneApp. There are two more rounds in which parents can pick new schools.

Fighetti said she didn’t know how many students would have been matched if the lottery had been run without the limitation.

In ExCEED’s application to take over the school, it projected next year’s enrollment at Mahalia Jackson at 380.

At a public hearing Tuesday, Lewis and board members heard comments from parents and the community on the charter applications from ExCEED and other groups. No one mentioned Jackson would be closing.

Lewis hinted that the fate of the schools could hinge on several factors; he mentioned enrollment and finances.

The district’s accountability committee will hear Lewis’s reasoning for the closure Tuesday.

On the agenda, Lewis wrote, “Mahalia Jackson Elementary school has had inconsistent and declining student enrollment, which have led to continuing concerns regarding the financial viability of the current elementary school program.”

He has not yet made a recommendation on what will be done with the three other schools. Last week, Lewis announced he will recommend that InspireNOLA take over Eleanor McMain Secondary School.

Effect of school closures

Since Hurricane Katrina, school closures have been a fact of life in New Orleans.

The RSD took over more than 100 schools, and by 2014, all of them had been had been handed over to charter organizations or closed. The state also has shut down numerous charters over the last decade for failing to meet academic, financial or organizational benchmarks.

Last year, the school board decided to close the D-rated McDonogh 35 Academy, a junior high school that fed into McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

Doug Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance Director at Tulane University, has found that closing and taking over schools can lead to improved student achievement — if the lowest performing schools are the ones that are closed.

That “mostly ensures that students end up in schools at least as good as the ones they are leaving,” he said.

He also has examined traditional school districts, which directly run all or most of the schools. Those closures are often based on budget cuts or enrollment issues, not academic results.
“They often end up closing schools that aren’t their worst schools, and that’s what ends up being harmful,” Harris said.

Mahalia Jackson’s C grade from the state puts it in the top third of New Orleans elementary schools last school year.

Those students will get priority in next year’s OneApp enrollment lottery.

*This story was updated after publication. Tuesday morning, the Orleans Parish School Board provided a document showing the school’s desired enrollment (388) as well as the number of seats it made available on OneApp (482). The story was updated with the desired enrollment, and the percentage of students matched to the school in OneApp was recalculated based on that number.

This story was also updated to report that a staffer emailed colleagues on March 31 to tell them Lewis had decided to recommend closing the school. (April 18, 2017)

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...