There’s nothing easy about school closures. Even if a school is clearly struggling, closing it causes real pain. It disrupts the lives of families and teachers, the fabric of communities, the rhythm of neighborhoods. It doesn’t help that closures are typically handled by big bureaucracies that do not exactly excel at communicating clearly, treating people sensitively, or anticipating the many practical challenges facing the people who are affected.
What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that the pain will be worth it; how much students benefit from a school closure depends largely on whether or not they go on to substantially better schools, which doesn’t always happen.
Luckily, closures are rare. For most parents, they are a sad but distant event, like a three-alarm house fire you hear about on the evening news. Every once in a while, though, they hit closer to home. That happened to me this week, when the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) announced its intention to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, a 300-student school spanning pre-K to fifth grade, due to low enrollment and financial unsustainability.
My daughter has attended Mahalia Jackson since she was four. Her entry into school predates the current centralized enrollment system. I wanted her to attend a traditional, public school. Mahalia Jackson’s small campus of only younger children appealed to me, a first-time parent who wasn’t ready for her to mingle with students three times her age. Despite having minor challenges every year, we have a great relationship with the school, as do the many other families that have returned year after year for the past six years or more.
Through my experiences working in education in New Orleans, I’ve witnessed school closures because of poor performance and observed the sterile way in which families were informed. I’ve worked at a school that, unfortunately, had to give up its charter due to financial unsustainability, and I was one of the first staff members to lose their jobs (last in, first to go). I remember how it felt to have my job evaporate, through no fault of my own, during an equally sterile phone call. In both of those cases, neither the parents nor the staff had the support they really needed.
Now, my husband and I are crippled with the weight of deciding where our child will continue her educational journey. What was once set in in virtual stone has crumbled like some our city’s worst pothole-riddled streets. Like our fellow parents, we worry about how our children will cope with losing their longtime childhood friends, how they will embrace their new environment, how their new environment will embrace us as parents, whether our first choice of schools will be available, and so much more.
This time, let's put families first
To its credit, OPSB seems committed to a more humane school closure process this time around. It intends to continue operating the school through the next school year, giving families like mine a year to find alternative schools for our children. All Mahalia Jackson students will also have preferred status in the city’s OneApp enrollment process next year, meaning my daughter and her classmates will go to the top of the list for any schools they apply to next.
OPSB also asked us here at EdNavigator if we could support Mahalia Jackson families through their transition process to new schools. We said yes.
We agreed to do this for a few reasons. In our view, school closures may always be disruptive, but they don’t have to be so traumatic. We wanted to help families at Mahalia Jackson get what they deserve: clear information, a real person to talk to, and reliable, ongoing guidance as they figure out what’s next. We also welcomed the chance to develop a different way to handle school closures, one that puts families first.
Our goal is to help every family at Mahalia Jackson understand their school options and successfully navigate the application and enrollment process, so that they feel well-informed and supported rather than shut out. They’ll each have access to me and our other Navigators, who are community members with deep experience in local schools. We’ll start by getting to know them and their families and asking what they’re looking for in their next school. Then, we’ll roll up our sleeves and help them get it. While OPSB is paying for the cost of our time, our advice will always be independent and driven solely by the needs and best interests of students and their families.
My gut, at this very finite moment, is telling me to keep my daughter where she is and to take the next six months to draft my questions, interview schools and really, REALLY, observe how other schools are educating kids throughout our city before deciding which school she should attend next. Thankfully, our work at EdNavigator will help us and other families quickly narrow down that list.
This work is personal to me and EdNavigator, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to help so many of my neighbors and friends. If you’re one of them, know this: We’ll fight like hell to do what’s right for you and your kids. We know nothing we can do can make you happy with this very difficult experience, but we’ll do everything we can to ensure your children end up in a school where they’ll be safe, happy and successful in the years to come.