Marie Thompson volunteers at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which her two grandchildren attend. She was shocked to learn the superintendent wants to close the school. That action has been delayed for now.
Marie Thompson volunteers at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which her two grandchildren attend. She was shocked to learn the superintendent wants to close the school. That action has been delayed for now. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

When Marie Thompson was invited to a meeting at her grandchildren’s school on April 12, she never imagined Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. would announce he wanted to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School.

“We’re thinking,” she recalled, “he’s going to talk about a charter school. He said, ‘Well, I have some bad news.’”

School closures, charter takeovers and leadership changes have become common in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. In just four months, families at Mahalia Jackson have faced all three.

“We still don’t know what’s going to happen,” Thompson said.

Under the leadership of founding principal Lakeysha London, the school steadily added grades and students over six years.

Last summer, London moved to a high school. Her replacement left in December, and Litouri Smith took over.

In January, families learned that a charter group wanted to convert the 275-student school to a charter.

Then, at that meeting, Lewis told parents he wanted to close the school at the end of the 2017-18 school year because of under-enrollment. Tuesday, a school board committee approved the recommendation.

But Thursday evening, the school board voted to delay that move. It’s unclear how long the decision will be put off.

“How can you close a school that is not failing?” Thompson asked in an interview.

The C-rated school ranks in the top third of elementary schools in the city. In March, the school board recognized it for academic gains.

Mahalia Jackson, which reopened in 2010, is unusual in New Orleans; the building also houses a health clinic, an early childhood center and a library.

Thompson’s granddaughter is in third grade; her grandson is in fourth. They’ve been there since kindergarten.

“How can you close a school that is not failing?”—Marie Thompson, grandmother of two Mahalia Jackson students

She recalled the January meeting at which school district officials discussed the effort to charter Mahalia Jackson. “They never said they were intending on closing the school,” she said.

A nascent charter group, ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization, wanted to take over their school and the four other traditional schools left in the city. After Hurricane Katrina, those schools remained under the local school district while struggling schools were closed by the state or handed over to charter operators.

That application appeared to be moving along, in part because of the people involved. ExCEED is led by principals and current and former central office staff.

But earlier this month, a team of independent consultants concluded the brand-new charter group couldn’t handle five schools. It recommended the district deny the application.

Several days later, the school district invited parents to a “very important meeting to share with you the future plans for Mahalia Jackson Elementary.” There, they learned about the plan to close it.

Lewis had made that decision almost two weeks before, but he didn’t want anyone to know until he was ready, according to a school district document.

Wednesday afternoon, the day before Lewis probably would have denied ExCEED’s application, the charter group withdrew it.

Mahalia Jackson didn’t meet enrollment goals, but it’s not alone

At the board’s committee meeting this week, the district reported Mahalia Jackson was 10 percent under its enrollment target as of Oct.1.

That’s true. The school enrolled 275 of the 306 students it had hoped to enroll.

But that’s a lot better than some schools.

McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School enrolled just 67 percent of the students it wanted. At Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, it was 75 percent. Both are charter schools, not directly under the control of the school board.

At least 14 elementary schools did worse than Mahalia Jackson last fall, according to data from last year’s OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment lottery.

The district’s other four direct-run schools did much better than Mahalia Jackson, enrolling 99 percent of their targets. Three have B grades from the state; McDonogh 35 Senior High School has a C.

90%How close Mahalia Jackson came to meeting its enrollment target for fall 201614Elementary schools fell short by more than that

District staff told the board at Tuesday’s committee meeting that Mahalia Jackson’s growth had slowed lately.

Chief Strategy Officer Colleston Morgan said between 15 and 36 percent of students in each grade had sought spots at other schools next year. The highest attrition was for sixth grade, which the school is adding this fall.

The school district has had preliminary enrollment projections since early March. In late March, a school district employee inquired whether new students could be prevented from enrolling at Mahalia Jackson next year because Lewis wanted to close it.

In the end, they decided to allow only siblings of current students. Five made the cut.

That brings next fall’s projection to 274, which is 71 percent of its goal. We don’t know how that compares with other schools.

Board takes action, then reverses course

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Ben Kleban listened to a staff presentation on Mahalia Jackson’s enrollment.

He asked Lewis if the district had advertised to attract more students. Lewis said the district has never advertised for any of the schools it runs directly.

Ads for charter schools, on the other hand, can be seen all over the city — on billboards, at bus stops, even grocery carts. In fact, a study has shown that’s the primary way they respond to competition, even more than working to improve academics.

The committee approved the closure on a voice vote. Kleban did not vote.

“I do not believe enrollment is a solid rationale for closing this brand-new building down.”—Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban

That’s when Thompson decided she would attend Thursday’s meeting, where several other parents and community members criticized the closure.

“I feel slighted as an employee and I feel disappointed as a parent,” said Christy Washington, who said she works at the school.

Another speaker challenged the board: “You have what you all have been crying for: a successful school.”

After 10 people spoke, Kleban interjected with an offer to delay action. “I do not believe enrollment is a solid rationale for closing this brand-new building down,” he said.

He said he agrees the district shouldn’t run Mahalia Jackson forever, but he wanted more information before closing it.

“The word ‘closure’ is very different than a change in operator,” Kleban said. “Closure implies that families need to leave.”

Thompson is happy with the delay.  “It wasn’t done right,” she said.

She and her husband volunteer at the school and were there Friday morning. “We live to fight another day.”

This story was updated after publication to include background on Mahalia Jackson and the other remaining traditional schools in New Orleans.

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...