Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is not backing off his plan to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School next year, but he has changed his rationale.

At a meeting for parents Wednesday night, Lewis pitched his plan in a new way.

“My recommendation to the school board is simply to return this facility to its original intent,” he said.

When the building reopened in 2010, he said, it was meant to be a multi-use community center with a variety of services for families. It has a health clinic, a public library branch and a preschool program.

In the 2011-12 year, the decision was made to “deviate” from the early childhood focus and add elementary grades, according to Lewis’ presentation.

“I want to be clear, we are going back to what the community wanted from the very beginning,” he said.

Most of the people who spoke oppose closing the school.

“You’re talking about going back to its original state,” one man said. “What does it look like going forward?”

In April, Lewis said enrollment was the primary reason to close Mahalia Jackson. While that came up Wednesday night, he focused on facilities. The building isn’t large enough to be a full elementary school while sharing space with those other programs, he said.

He also said the school is on track to fall short by $550,000 next school year.

Lewis said he had planned to expand Mahalia Jackson to sixth grade so students could enter seventh grade at Eleanor McMain Secondary School. (Despite the impending closure, the sixth grade still is being added next year.)

But now that McMain is becoming a charter, it will transition solely to a high school in two years.

Lewis told families the district will help them find new schools. He showed a list of schools that should have openings in the next round of the city’s centralized enrollment program.

Parents didn’t learn about the closure in time to apply to other schools in the first round.

Plans for Mahalia Jackson have changed a few times this year. First, it was one of the schools that a new charter organization, led by school district employees, wanted to take over.

After evaluators said the charter group wasn’t ready to run five schools, Lewis decided to limit enrollment at Mahalia Jackson next year to siblings of current students. Just five new students were admitted for next fall.

In April, Lewis announced he wanted to close the school because it wasn’t meeting enrollment goals. The school missed its enrollment target for last fall, although more than a dozen other elementary schools missed theirs by more.

A school board committee initially affirmed Lewis’ decision to close Mahalia Jackson, but the full board held off after people complained.

Another public meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the school, 2405 Jackson Ave.

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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...