Dec 202012

James Weldon Johnson Elementary School on Monroe Street.

The James Weldon Johnson school in west Carrollton will close in the summer of 2013 and become “swing space” for other schools undergoing renovations, as part of an effort to consolidate the number of campuses run directly by the Recovery School District, officials announced Thursday.

Current Johnson students will be guaranteed placement at Benjamin Banneker elementary school, which is currently located in the Riverbend but slated to move to a new building on the Dunbar site in Hollygrove in several years, officials said.

Johnson — while technically deemed a “failing” school this year with a performance score of 70.9, slightly below the cutoff of 75 needed to earn a ‘D’ — has shown a steady improvement since its low score of 51.8 in 2009. It is also only a touch below Banneker’s score of 74.7.

The decision to close Johnson was based less on the performance scores than an overall strategic shift away from direct-run schools, said RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson in an interview Thursday. The district intends to move more toward a system of charters, and to ensure that the schools in the system are the proper size, Peterson said.

The 2012 New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools lists Banneker has having 505 students and Johnson as having 308 students this past spring, but Peterson said those number are now closer to 400 at Banneker and about 270 at Johnson. Meanwhile, the Banneker campus can hold more than 600 kids. Because some Johnson students and even some Banneker students will likely choose other schools through the OneApp process this spring, Peterson said all those from both schools who want to go to Banneker should be accommodated there.

Those logistical issues were an important consideration for district leaders when deciding which of the schools to close, Peterson said. Fewer students will directly experience the “disruption” of having their school closed by selecting Johnson for closure instead of Banneker, he said.

“The decision to close a school causes disruption to students, and we want to minimize that disruption,” Peterson said.

Peterson said he was not yet able to answer questions specifically about the staffing at the new combined school.

“We will staff up to accommodate the additional student population,” Peterson said. “The plan is to have a great staff next year.”

Once the current students move out, Johnson will become a swing space for students from another campus — yet to be determined — that is undergoing a full renovation that requires their building to be empty. The Johnson community has complained about the violence in the streets around their school that often comes much too close for comfort, but Peterson said that whichever school is placed there will likely understand the long-term benefit.

“I think our school operators have been smart and thoughtful about these temporary locations,” Peterson said. “They realize the larger picture is that they will have state-of-the-art facilities to move back into. They’ve been good sports.”

Under the school-facilities master plan approved in late 2011, $14.8 million was slated to renovate either Johnson or the old Priestley site on Leonidas, contingent on a study of the Priestley site — some school leaders are worried that cost overruns on projects already started will result in major cuts to later-phase projects. That money is still on the table for one of the two sites, Peterson said, and said that one campus or the other could ultimately be renovated even without an operator immediately in mind.

In the meantime, designs are complete on the Dunbar building that will ultimately house the current Banneker students and whichever Johnson children join them, Peterson said. He said he didn’t have the current move-in date at hand, but construction of a school typically takes about 18 months.

An informational session for Johnson families will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, at the Johnson campus.

For information on changes to other RSD schools around New Orleans, see this report by our partners at WWL-TV.

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