IDEA Oscar Dunn charter school, which opened in New Orleans less than three years ago, will close at the end of the 2021-2022 school year in May amid declining student enrollment citywide, according to an announcement from the NOLA Public Schools district. 

The school is the second NOLA Public Schools district charter school this week that officials have said will close due to low enrollment. On Monday, FirstLine Schools announced it would close Live Oak Academy.  

Both announcements come weeks after a study showed the city’s schools enroll about 47,000 students but have roughly 3,000 open seats. Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis and empty seats can strain school budgets.

The IDEA charter network is a national group that operates in several cities across the country. The group opened its first school in New Orleans in fall 2019 — meaning Oscar Dunn has operated through three pandemic-affected school years.

As COVID-19 cases were detected in the state in the spring of 2020, Gov. John Bel Edwards shuttered schools statewide and students ended the school year learning from home. Because of that shift, state testing was cancelled and no state performance scores were issued. That fall, students resumed in-person schooling part way into the fall semester. Students took state standardized tests last spring but the state school board declined to issue official performance scores arguing the pandemic had a substantial impact on learning. 

State officials did issue what they called “simulated” school performance scores, rather than formal letter grades. Under the statewide scale, however, Dunn’s score would have earned the school an F.

The school’s website boasts an enrollment of 522 students, but state data from an enrollment count taken in October shows just 342 students. Live Oak had a similar enrollment shortfall.

Dunn is located in the old Frances Gaudet school on Hayne Boulevard in New Orleans East. The building was previously occupied by Lake Forest Elementary Charter School which moved into a new school building.

Ken Campbell, the Executive Director of the IDEA charter network’s Southeast Louisiana group, said low enrollment and the building’s age both factored into the decision to close.

“It’s one of the smaller schools in the district in one of the oldest buildings,” he said.

“Our entire team was compelled by the data that New Schools for New Orleans and district released publicly in early December that talked about the overcapacity challenges we have in New Orleans public schools. It certainly doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” Campbell said.

“We thought, our school should certainly be wondering if we could get the enrollment to offer the range of programming we wanted to offer.”

Campbell said it was a difficult decision and that the school will work with families to help find new schools for their students.

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.

NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said closures like these 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. 

“We know these decisions were not easy to reach, and I greatly appreciate First Line and IDEA for their commitment to putting students first and foremost,” Lewis said in a statement released Tuesday. 

The district “will provide more details about the impact of population shifts” at its Jan. 20 board meeting. That’s one day ahead of the Jan. 21 deadline for parents to apply for new schools for their children on the district’s centralized enrollment lottery.

Update: This story was updated after publication with comments from Ken Campbell.

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...