FirstLine Live Oak School in Uptown. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

On the heels of a report showing declining school enrollment across the NOLA Public Schools district and city overall, FirstLine Charter Schools’ Live Oak elementary school will close at the end of the school year, network CEO Sabrina Pence said Monday.

“It’s probably one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make because the school is doing really well and they have an amazing staff,” Pence said. “The population has run down to 315 students and if we want to continue running the school the way we’ve been running it, subsidizing it, we’d have to make some pretty severe cuts.”

The D-rated Irish Channel school, one of the network’s five elementary charters, enrolled about 315 students this year, well short of its 500-student enrollment goal. That means the school has to operate on funds from the FirstLine network budget, Pence said.

The move could be one of many consolidations or closures announced in coming weeks, as school officials begin to forecast enrollment and budgets for the 2022-23 school year amid years of declining enrollment in the city. The announcement also comes three weeks ahead of the enrollment deadline for the district’s Common Application Process, formerly called OneApp.

NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said closures like this and other possible consolidations or reductions in grade sizes at schools may be necessary to ensure the all-charter district’s schools can continue operating sustainably and with extracurricular activities. 

New Orleans charter schools expanded rapidly over the past 15 years as the city recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and in particular over the last decade, when officials expected a much larger population increase than what materialized. The expansion included the opening of dozens of new charter schools. Now, officials say, many schools are under enrolled.

At an Orleans Parish School Board meeting in December, district officials said the city has 47,000 public school students, including children enrolled in a handful of non-OPSB charter schools authorized by the state. Combined, the schools have more than 3,000 seats of excess capacity. Because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, empty seats can mean a gap in expected revenue and put a pinch on school budgets.

At Firstline, Pence said the network chose Live Oak because it’s the group’s newest school — FirstLine took over the campus from ReNew Schools in 2018 — and it had the most enrollment challenges, including significant under enrollment this year.

“We decided to move quickly because we’ve been wrestling with this over the years and the enrollment report really confirmed what we’ve been seeing,” she said.

NOLA Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment regarding FirstLine’s decision. 

The 315 students enrolled at Live Oak this year are fewer than any of the previous four years. In 2018, the school enrolled roughly 425 students and although they enrolled more than 600 students the following year, thanks in large part to a middle school student surge, they were back down to about 400 last year. Pence said that led to a months-long recruiting effort last year that included door-knocking and tabling. 

“It didn’t result in students, you could feel something was off,” she said. “Now we have these enrollment numbers you can see — there just aren’t as many kids in the system.”

Pence said because the network wanted to provide arts and extracurricular activities, they’ve run the school on a deficit for several years.

“We’ve been subsidizing it from the centralized FirstLine funding. We’ve been able to do that but you can’t run a deficit in a long term way,” she said. “It would have led us to have to create a barebones model which is really not something we want to do.”

If there’s any good takeaway from the announcement at FirstLine, Pence said it may be for staff. 

“What we are in a position to do this year is also offer any staff who want to stay with FirstLine a position to stay with FirstLine,” she said.

Federal Pandemic Funding

School leaders have relied on federal pandemic relief funding — like the $13.2 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund passed last year as part of the CARES Act — to help with low enrollment and other budget struggles.

“We re-adjusted our budget to address enrollment but are heavily relying on ESSER and other one time funds to keep it balanced,” Pence said, noting Live Oak was only about 60 percent full. 

Other leaders are relying on that money too, including KIPP New Orleans Schools Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise.

“The ESSER money is giving everyone a little padding this year but it’s an economic crisis and an academic crisis because you’re not able to effectively use your resources,” Kalifey-Aluise said in an interview last month.

“This started several years ago,” she said. “I worry people will think this is pandemic or Ida-related if they are not digging in.”

It’s unclear exactly how the “right-sizing” plan will affect schools across the district. Officials are expected to announce more information at the next Orleans Parish School Board meeting in mid-January. 

Though not explicitly part of the district’s “right-sizing” plan, last month, the district granted Einstein Charter Schools permission to consolidate its middle school and expand its two elementary schools to include middle school grades. That could help the network save on operational and facility costs. 

Two additional schools, James M. Singleton Charter School and Arise Academy, will also close at the end of the school year. After failing to meet academic and operational standards, the district declined to grant them a new charter contract. 

In fact, last summer, when the district abruptly tried to shutter Singleton — but ultimately backed off after a lawsuit — the district had planned to send Singleton’s students to Live Oak

Combined, Singleton, Arise and Live Oak enroll approximately 884 students.

Students from closing schools will receive “priority” in the district’s centralized enrollment process. The first round of NCAP closes Jan. 21.

“I think people will have to make some tough choices to make sure we fully resource our kids,” Pence said. “We need to maximize our best buildings and people resources for kids and that’s going to take some shifting of how we put our schools together and I look forward to seeing where we’re going to go as a system.”

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...