One of the city’s most sought-after elementary schools will not admit new prekindergarten students this fall, one year after converting to a charter school.

Officials from Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School want to “revamp” the program — now offered for 3- and 4-year-old students — and they say they must take a year off to “figure out what structure works best for our families.”

“This will not affect any current pre-K students at Benjamin Franklin Elementary,” school spokesman Devin Johnson wrote in an email. Students now enrolled in the younger class, called “pre-K 3,” will be allowed to attend as “pre-K 4” students next school year, he said.

Baby Ben, as the school is commonly known, was run directly by the Orleans Parish school district until last summer, when it converted to a charter school. Its nonprofit board is slated to discuss the prekindergarten program Thursday night.

“This decision was made so that we can best serve future pre-K students and families,” Johnson said.

Orleans Parish school district officials declined to comment on this story.

Parents seeking the program through the city’s centralized enrollment lottery, called OneApp, will notice the school isn’t taking applications for the prekindergarten program.

This year Baby Ben has 43 prekindergarten students. The school runs a gifted pre-kindergarten and accepts students through a state early childhood education program for disadvantaged families.

”This decision was made so that we can best serve future pre-K students and families.”—Devin Johnson, spokesman for Benjamin Franklin Elementary

Students who enter through either program are guaranteed admission to kindergarten. This year the school has 74 kindergarten students.

Pre-kindergarten is funded separately from K-12 education in Louisiana. A 2017 study found many charter schools aren’t given enough funding to offer the program, which is optional and can be expensive. The study estimated that schools spent between $3,120 and $6,920 per pre-k student — on top of the state’s subsidy of $4,580 for the 2014-15 academic year.

Pre-kindergarten has positive effects on students, studies show. But it costs thousands of dollars per student. And pre-K students don’t participate in high-stakes state standardized tests, which largely determine school performance ratings. So charter schools must weigh the high costs of offering pre-K against the chance that pre-K students will move to another school before they enter testing grades, the researchers said.

During the school year prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 67 pre-kindergarten seats for every 100 public-school kindergarten students. Ten years later, according to the study, there were 44 seats per 100, a 34 percent drop. Meanwhile, seats have risen statewide.

Before the storm, the district used federal Title I money, provided to local education agencies with high numbers of low-income students  to help fund pre-kindergarten throughout the system. Now, most charter schools, which are overseen by the district but are run autonomously, receive their Title I money directly and decide what to do with it.

Baby Ben’s board is expected to discuss the change at a board meeting Thursday night. The school had no comment on whether funding had to do with the decision.

“We anticipate our pre-K program will resume for the 2020-21 school year,” Johnson said.

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...