A proposal to convert Mahalia Jackson Elementary from a school serving children up to grade 5 back into a preschool center was met with a mix of questions and outright opposition from dozens of families and Central City community members on Wednesday evening, leaving the school’s fate before the Orleans Parish School Board uncertain.
OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. began Wednesday’s community meeting by explaining that the Mahalia Jackson was originally envisioned as a place to combine preschool and kindergarten seats with community services such as a health clinic, a public library, adult computer classes, a playground and a test kitchen. Over the years, to try to make the center financially viable, one grade was added per year to bring it to its current configuration serving up to grade 5, Lewis said.
To continue that pattern to create a traditional K-8 school would entail renovations of nearly $4 million, Lewis said. But in the meantime, low enrollment and the challenges of working in a space originally designed for very young children continue to make Mahalia Jackson much more costly than other schools, running an annual deficit of about $550,000 after accounting all the state per-pupil tax money allocated to the campus.
“We don’t feel this will work out to an effective K-8 school,” Lewis said. “If you think about the original intent of having a health clinic, a library and all these other services, those service providers would have to be moved out to have classroom space.”
For that reason, Lewis said, he recommends eliminating the upper elementary grades and returning Mahalia Jackson to a preschool facility with a variety of community services. The Orleans Parish School Board would even use some of the space, so that families would not always have to travel to the Westbank headquarters, and Mahalia Jackson would become a model that could be replicated around the city.
“I do have a vision that this would be the start for other centers like this throughout the city,” Lewis said. “We should have hubs throughout the city to better meet the needs of our families. … My recommendation to the school board is simply to return this facility to its original intent.”
If the School Board accepts his recommendation, Mahalia Jackson would stay open through the 2017-18 school year — though families could still apply to other schools if they wanted, and Lewis offered a list of about a dozen C-or-higher rated schools that still have openings. Next year, when Mahalia Jackson was deemed a “closing” school, the remaining families would actually have first priority for any openings at the schools of their choice.
Some parents in the audience of around 75 people seemed resigned to the school’s closure, and focused on pressing Lewis for details on their children’s options at other schools. Others, like parent Tonette Porter, urged Lewis to reconsider, and said more people would have shown up if they believed the closure of Mahalia Jackson wasn’t already a final decision. Central City has other options for the community services, but it doesn’t have any other school like Mahalia Jackson, Porter said.
“We need another school in the community, where the children can walk to school,” Porter said. “Don’t do this to these parents. Don’t do this to me.”
Central City resident Ernie Charles said that closing Mahalia Jackson would be destructive to the neighborhood. There is no need to add higher grades, he said — Mahalia Jackson’s current model of serving just younger kids is actually preferable.
“For them to try to destroy this neighborhood, that’s when the crime comes in,” Charles said. “We know what happens when you get overage kids with our babies. … We know that when they close schools and say they going to take care of you, that’s a lie.”
Nahliah Webber, director of the Orleans Parish Education Network advocacy group, questioned the factors that lead to Mahalia Jackson’s description as operating at a deficit. She asked if a different configuration other than PK-8 — such as the K-4 or K-5 model found at some other schools — might be more viable.
“I don’t understand how you can expand an additional five grades, and then say you have to go all the way back to the original structure,” Webber said.
Lewis, however, reminded her that even in its current configuration, the school operates at a deficit. Reducing the number of partially filled classrooms would allow tenants in the space to expand, with their leases allowing the facility to break even.
Central City resident Kevin Matthews protested any plan to change the school at all.
“You need your children to stay here. This is all we have,” Matthews said to the audience. “We don’t have nothing else. We’re not going to let them take nothing else from us. We need to fight for what’s ours. This is Mahalia Jackson, and it’s going to stay that way.”
Mahalia Jackson was not even a school for five years prior to Hurricane Katrina, but a barely-functioning front office for social workers, said Thelma Harris French. She was among the advocates who drove its renovation into the early-childhood model after Katrina, and she said Central City should never have let state education officials push it toward a more cookie-cutter K-8 elementary.
Now, however, the strongest need in the neighborhood is actually for seats for the youngest children, to begin preparing them for elementary school.
“I don’t want us to lose this center,” French said. “I don’t want us to lose the investment in early childhood education.”
School Board member Ben Kleban (along with colleagues on the board John Brown and Leslie Ellison) attended the meeting, and pointed out Lewis is simply making a recommendation, but that the board will have the final decision. He said he has heard a lot of community support for a focus on early childhood education at Mahalia Jackson, but that he is also worried about the students and families already attending.
“Ultimately, is that in the best interest of our kids to have that kind of disruption?” Kleban asked.
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.