The Orleans Parish School Board voted to shutter Mahalia Jackson Elementary School at the end of the school year, which will leave just three traditional schools under the district’s control.

The board also voted Thursday night to hand control of the facility in Central City to the Dryades YMCA, which plans to shift its lower grades from nearby James M. Singleton Charter School.

Dryades YMCA President and CEO Gregory Phillips said in an interview that taking over the building was a “natural fit.” The YMCA, he said, serves Mahalia Jackson students, has experience administering a school and has worked with community partners.

The YMCA received letters of support from community organizations housed in the Mahalia Jackson building, which houses a health clinic, a preschool program and a library branch.

The school board voted unanimously on both issues and didn’t discuss them.

It has whittled away at the number of traditional schools in a march toward being the first city in the country that offers only charters.

Already, almost all of the 86 public schools in the city are charters, which are publicly funded, but privately run. Charters get to create their own curriculum, hire who they want, and set their own calendars as long as they meet certain performance benchmarks.

Last spring, there were five traditional schools in the city. The school board handed one of them to a charter group.

Next summer, the school board will start overseeing charters that now answer to the state-run Recovery School District. The RSD took over New Orleans’ failing schools in 2005 and started a years-long process of closing them and handing them over to charter groups to turn them around.

Of the three traditional schools left, principals of two — Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology and Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School —  submitted applications to convert them to charters next year.
Before the board meeting, members of the public packed the board room for a hearing on those and other charter applications.

Employees, parents and students at the schools, as well as other charter leaders, spoke in favor of converting the schools to charters. An independent evaluator, however, has recommended denying the applications.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. will make his recommendations on those applications in December.

Thursday night’s vote on Mahalia Jackson brought to an end a roller-coaster year for parents and staff. The school’s performance score took a 30-point nose dive this spring.

It started last school year with a new principal who lasted just a few months. Then it became part of an effort to convert all of the remaining schools to charters under a new operator called ExCEED.

An independent group reviewing the charter applications said Mahalia Jackson wasn’t financially sustainable, and the charter group’s effort fell apart.

Shortly before Lewis was set to make a recommendation on ExCEED’s applications, he announced he wanted to close Mahalia Jackson. The school board put that decision on hold.

In the meantime, Lewis met with parents and community members, saying he wanted to allow the building to continue as a community center of some kind and keep early childhood education there.

In September, the school district announced it was looking for someone to operate the facility. The Dryades YMCA was the only applicant.

All students now at Mahalia Jackson will receive priority to choose a new school through the city’s centralized enrollment system for the 2018-19 school year, according to the district.

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.”

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...