Schools
 

Orleans school board committee votes to close Mahalia Jackson

An Orleans Parish School Board committee approved the superintendent’s proposal to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School in the spring of 2018 because it’s not on track to meet the district’s enrollment goal.

The decision effectively ends the effort of a new charter group that applied to take over the school, although the group is still in the running for three others.

If the full board ratifies the decision Thursday, the city will have at least one traditional school next year.

Tuesday’s committee left open the possibility that Mahalia Jackson could remain open if a charter group takes it over for the 2018-19 school year.

“There has not been a definitive decision yet about its future,” said board member Ben Kleban, who represents the district where the school is located.

Depending on what the district decides down the road, he said, “this school could actually remain in operation as an elementary school of some configuration, just not as a direct-operated school.”

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced the closure last week, citing under-enrollment.

“It is my determination that the K-6 portion of Mahalia Jackson is not sustainable as a standalone school at this time,” he said at the meeting.

Lewis had made that decision by March 31, according to an email from a school district employee. But he didn’t break the news to parents until last week, the day before spring break. Students return to class Wednesday.

On April 3, the school district decided to limit enrollment at Mahalia Jackson next year to siblings of returning students. That decision was based on enrollment projections that the district had since early March.

Days before, an independent team of evaluators said a new charter group shouldn’t be allowed to charter all five of the district’s traditional schools, including Mahalia Jackson.

After the district limited enrollment, fewer than five new students were admitted, for a total of 274. That’s 71 percent of the 388 students the district hoped to enroll.

The school has added grades and students almost each year since it reopened in 2010. But Chief Strategy Officer Colleston Morgan said at the meeting the rate of growth has slowed in the past three years.

Last fall, the school was 10 percent below its targeted enrollment, he said.

Kleban wanted to know how the school’s enrollment target compared to others in the district. “It compares unfavorably,” Morgan said.

Figures from the city’s centralized enrollment system, OneApp, showed that between 15 and 36 percent of students in each grade had sought seats at other schools next year, Morgan said.

Rising sixth graders had the highest attrition. The school is adding that grade in the fall.

Based on the district’s data, 22 percent of students have applied to another school.

Meanwhile, fewer students picked Mahalia Jackson as their first or second choice than in the two prior years, according to Morgan’s presentation.

After the first round of OneApp, the school was at 70 percent of its target enrollment. Recovery School District officials, who manage OneApp, couldn’t immediately compare that to other schools.

Morgan said the percentage of students who are set to return next year is about 75 percent. That’s the threshold the district expects charter schools to meet.

But he said it’s low compared “to most schools that are under this board’s oversight and definitely in the lower half overall of the city.”

The local school district retained the highest-performing, most desirable schools after the state took over most schools in the city after Hurricane Katrina.

“Have there been any efforts to recruit more actively for the school?” Kleban asked. “I can’t recall ever seeing anything about Mahalia Jackson.”
Lewis responded, “For our five direct-run schools we have not done any advertisement.”

It’s common to see ads for charter schools at bus stops and on billboards around the city. A study found 25 out of 30 school leaders responded to competition by engaging in marketing.

District staff amended the resolution in the meeting to make it clear that the building itself would not be closed.

The refurbished Central City school also houses a medical clinic, a library branch and a preschool program. Lewis said the district is committed to working with those organizations.

Students who stay at Mahalia Jackson through the 2017-18 school year will receive priority placement in the first two rounds of OneApp.

The full school board will vote on the closure Thursday. That’s when Lewis will present recommendations on what to do with three traditional schools that a new charter group called ExCEED wants to take over.

In addition to the schools’ principals, the group is led by current and former district staff. Potential conflicts of interest led the district to establish a firewall for certain employees.

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