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2 New Orleans public schools to close at end of school year as district begins downsizing

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Live Oak Academy and Oscar Dunn will close at the end of the school year due to low enrollment as part of the district's plan to "right-size" its all-charter system.

Two New Orleans public schools have announced plans to close at the end of the school year due to low enrollment a month after a school board meeting revealed the district has too many seats and not enough students.

December’s school board meeting previewed district plans to “right-size” the city’s all-charter district, and now those plans are quickly coming to fruition with the closure of two schools, Live Oak Academy and Oscar Dunn.

“NOLA Public Schools stands fully behind the hard decisions to close two of our community’s schools because of a surplus of available seats for students in the district,” the district said in a statement Tuesday.

The schools are operated by FirstLine Schools and IDEA Public Schools respectively. FirstLine is one of the city’s oldest operators and has five local schools. IDEA, a national charter with 137 schools in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, only operates one school in New Orleans, Oscar Dunn.

“We know these decisions were not easy to reach, and I greatly appreciate FirstLine and IDEA for their commitment to putting students first and foremost,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement.

Students attending both schools will be given priority access during the district’s centralized enrollment process and have until Jan. 21 to submit new school preferences.

If a family misses the deadline, they can participate in the second round in April, though seats may no longer be available at some schools.
New Orleans opened dozens of new charter schools after Hurricane Katrina, and as families returned to the city, some schools filled up quickly.

But in recent years, the city’s population has stagnated and the number of school age children is starting to decline.

As a result, many schools are under-enrolled, and there are more than 3,000 empty seats city-wide. Lewis told board members in December that closures, consolidations and other reductions would be necessary in order to ensure the system’s viability.

In a statement, FirstLine described the decision to close Live Oak, its newest school which opened in 2018, as a consolidation meant to benefit all students.

“This was a very hard decision to make, but we know it is right for the system,” Sabrina Pence, FirstLine’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We hope other charter school operators will consider the same so that we may maximize resources across the city for children.”

Pence said FirstLine is “firmly committed” to enrolling Live Oak students in other FirstLine schools and will retain any staff who wish to work at another network school.

Live Oak, a preschool-8 campus in the Irish Channel, enrolled 320 students in October, but has room for more than 500 students. As a result, FirstLine has had to subsidize the school’s budget since state funding is tied to per-pupil enrollment.

Oscar Dunn, a K-7 school in New Orleans East, first opened in the fall of 2019 and is IDEA’s only school in the city. The school’s website said it currently enrolls 522 students, but as of October, the school reported less than 350 students.

Due to the pandemic, the school has never experienced a typical school year and has never received a formal grade from the state. Students sat for state exams last spring, and the state used this information, among other things, to issue “simulated” scores.

Under the state’s previous scale, both Oscar Dunn and Live Oak would have received F letter-grades.

IDEA Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published.

The district and its research partner New Schools for New Orleans are expected to provide a full presentation on enrollment trends and downsizing plans at the school board’s Jan. 20 meeting.

Some of the district's other schools have already taken steps to consolidate short of closing entire schools, including merging facilities.

Einstein Schools will transition its two elementary schools from a pre-K and K-5 model to a pre-K and K-8 model and will eventually close its middle school. All three schools are located in New Orleans East.

In addition to Live Oak Academy and Oscar Dunn, James M. Singleton Charter School and ARISE Academy will also close this year as part of the district’s annual charter renewal process.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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