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

Student enrollment in the NOLA Public Schools district is likely to continue declining in the coming years, a consultant told Orleans Parish School Board members in a highly anticipated presentation as part of the district’s ongoing “right-sizing” effort, at a Thursday night board meeting.

The city’s estimated 3,000 empty seats have a financial impact on every school program, independent consultant Brian Eschbacher said.  

The district and board have already acknowledged the challenge, but Thursday’s meeting included more details on what Eschbacher says is behind it: Declining birth rates, among other factors, were leading to smaller cohorts of kindergarteners entering the system each year, and students were moving out of the NOLA Public Schools system, he said. What’s not behind the drop, he added, are COVID-19-related school disruptions over the past two years. 

“Underfilled schools and classrooms make daily operations and instruction more expensive on a per-pupil basis,” he said. “When schools have fewer students — schools have to make tradeoffs with different positions” such as dropping art or extracurricular programs.

Eschbacher, who was contracted by the nonprofit group New Schools for New Orleans, said that city schools on average were filling 86 percent of their seats annually. 

On the left side of a chart, about nine schools were filling less than 60 percent of their seats, including one below 30 percent. Roughly one-quarter of schools were filling 97 percent of seats. (The schools were not labeled by name.)

“If you have fewer students entering the system through the next few years, you have the risk of more schools shifting to the left of this chart,” he said. 

Based on recent matriculation rates, if 100 kindergarten students entered the system today, only 87 would make it to their senior year, a significant decline in enrollment, according to the presentation.

“Right-sizing,” which has already resulted in two school closure announcements and could bring more, is a complicated undertaking in the city’s unique all-charter school district, where independent charter schools operate on contracts and the district has limited control to quickly shrink the system by closing schools. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. acknowledged this point Thursday night, publicly thanking FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence, who was in attendance. Pence announced in early January that one of her network’s schools would close in May due to enrollment challenges. 

“There are several levers that the board has but there are some things that are out of the board’s control,” Lewis said of the system.

“In a traditional school district, when this information is brought before the school board — the school board may look at this community where three schools are within a half-mile radius of each other and all the children can fit into two buildings — so you consolidate, and get one school out of the portfolio,” he said. “Our situation is different in New Orleans because each of our schools has charter contracts.”

No recommendations on strategy

The report didn’t offer specific recommendations, like how many or which schools should be closed, but rather suggested the district closely track and analyze the enrollment impacts of approving new charters, school closures and facility placements in the coming years. 

Board members thanked NSNO for their analysis. 

“The thing we have to do is make sure we are communicating to the community the changes we may have to make from year to year,” board member Nolan Marshall Jr. said. “And to make sure we’re not disproportionately affecting those who are already at a great disadvantage.”

He explicitly said should the district be considering closing a struggling school in an underprivileged community that it must be very carefully considered if that meant removing the only school from a neighborhood.

“They need to be in those neighborhoods. If you just look at numbers you could close them but they need to be there,” he said.

Board member J.C. Romero noted the increase in Hispanic students over the last several years. They now comprise 12 percent of city students, according to the presentation.

He implored the district to evaluate schools for the English Learner performance, noting a school could be struggling over all but doing well with EL students.

“They may be generally poor performing schools that are doing really great things with Latinx students,” he said.

Those schools should be able to share their techniques with other charter schools, he said. 

Dana Peterson, the new CEO of NSNO, implored the board to consider how to evaluate superintendent candidates for experience in this area. 

“The next superintendent really needs this type of experience, or understanding,” Peterson 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...