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NOLA-PS officials know they need to close, consolidate schools. But which ones?

Mostly maskless kindergarteners participate in music class at Young Audiences Charter School on March 21, 2022.
Aubri Juhasz
Kindergarteners participate in music class at Young Audiences Charter School on March 21, 2022.

Because of a rapidly declining student population in New Orleans, the city’s public school system has said it will consolidate or close schools. But district officials haven’t decided how to go about it just yet.

A broad drop in enrollment across the U.S. was underway before the pandemic began, caused by declining birth and immigration rates, though the problem has worsened significantly since then.

New Orleans’ school board discussed the issue Thursday following a presentation from Holly Reid of New Schools for New Orleans, an education nonprofit that’s been conducting research on this topic for more than a year.

There were nearly 8,000 empty seats in New Orleans’ K-12 schools last year, researchers said Thursday during the presentation meant to help board members decide what to do next.

The number and percentage of empty seats in grades K-5 have steadily increased each year for the past three years, Reid said, adding that declines in higher grades will become more obvious as these students enter middle and high school.

The district currently consists of 77 schools and enrolls roughly 44,000 students, down from a high of 49,000 students in 2019.

Since funding is tied to enrollment, fewer students means less money for districts. When left unaddressed, schools are often forced to layoff teachers or eliminate classes and extracurriculars in order to cover fixed expenses like facility maintenance.

Reid covered the second part of the nonprofit’s analysis Thursday, which looks at how parent demand and facility conditions impact school-level enrollment.

Since New Orleans’ system is open enrollment, parents decide which schools their children attend. Reid said demand continues to be concentrated in a small number of schools.

Half of kindergarten demand was for 13 of the district’s 49 elementary schools.

New Schools for New Orleans

But because of low enrollment, Reid said families have been more likely to match with one of their highest-ranked schools in recent years.

“Most families who chose most schools were probably happy … [and] got their first choice,” she said. “But we have quite a few families in just a handful of schools who ended up disappointed.”

Schools with a large number of empty seats already are at the greatest risk going forward, Reid said. Elementary schools with “low demand” lost more than 20% of their enrollment between 2019 and 2021, according to NSNO’s analysis.

New Schools for New Orleans

In terms of facilities, Reid said the data did not show a relationship between a school’s enrollment and how much money was needed for repairs over the next 10 years.

Following the presentation, board member Ethan Ashley asked Reid why researchers had decided to focus on demand data and facilities as opposed to other factors like neighborhood or student demographics.

Reid said her organization decided to model its analysis off of similar studies done in other districts and consulted directly with the district but did not speak to the board or other community organizations.

Moving forward, Reid said her organization would like to look at the relationship between enrollment and school quality, but chose not to factor in academic data this time around due to the impact of the pandemic on student achievement and testing.

Now it’s up to the district and its board to decide what to do next.

These conversations have been ongoing since December, when superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said that the district would consider consolidating and or closing existing schools and would not approve new charters that would create additional seats.

Since then, two schools have agreed to close due to low enrollment. In total four schools will close at the end of this school year, the other two as part of the district’s charter accountability process.

But while the schools serve a collective 1,200 students, the district said more closures are needed, since other high demand schools have been given permission to expand.

Preliminary enrollment trends were presented to the board in December, followed by a more comprehensive presentation in February.

The board has said equity is its biggest concern in deciding what schools to consolidate and close. At this point, the district has not announced a downsizing timeline or plan.

With Lewis set to leave when his contract expires in July, the issue will be up to his successor Avis Williams to tackle.

Williams, the current superintendent of public schools in Selma, Alabama, will begin her tenure in New Orleans on July 11.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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