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Jefferson schools superintendent Cade Brumley speaks before officials break ground for Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy's new school facilities during a ceremony in Kenner, La., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

The Jefferson Parish School Board approved a plan Wednesday to close three elementary schools and convert nine other schools to house prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Superintendent Cade Brumley said the restructuring will help retain students in the public school system and improve attendance and test scores, especially for students attending middle schools that house only sixth through eighth grades. He said average scores at those schools are about one-third lower than they are for students of the same ages at pre-K through eighth-grade schools.

Brumley said the Jefferson school system loses more than 500 students each year between the fifth and sixth grades, as students leaving elementary schools do not move on to other public schools. Creating pre-K-8 schools would minimize transitions and hopefully retain some of those students, he said.

To help facilitate the change, the system will also adjust attendance boundaries for several schools, redirecting hundreds of students to new schools. The changes take effect in August.

Making the changes will cost the system about $900,000 in the first year, though retention of students would bring in additional state money, Brumley said. The system will also make efforts to retain the employees at schools involved in the changes.

The measure passed 8-0, with board member Mark Morgan absent.

More than a dozen speakers addressed the board during a public hearing on the plan Wednesday. Several spoke in support of the changes, but others voiced concerns. 

Amanda Osteen has a daughter in kindergarten at Bissonet Plaza Elementary. Under the plan, her daughter will go to what is now Theodore Roosevelt Middle School.

"Will parents have an option to choose another school?" she asked, adding that she worried about the lack of age-appropriate facilities such as bathrooms and play equipment at Roosevelt for very young children.

"I am not comfortable with her going there," she said.

Another parent, Nathaniel Webber, said he worries about the safety of his 6-year-old daughter in a school with much older students. He also worries that if she turns out to be at a school with poor leadership, she would be stuck there through eighth grade.

Kesler Camese-Jones, who spoke on behalf of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, offered pointed criticisms of the way the plan was rolled out to the public and employees.

"Our employees are at their saturation point," she said. "They are overwhelmed" with new initiatives including curricula and evaluation systems.

The pace of change under Brumley's year-old administration has accelerated beyond what many teachers and employees are able to handle, Camese-Jones said. 

"I am not for or against the model," she said. "But a phase-in would have been better."

She also pointed out that notices for Wednesday's public meeting went out the week before Mardi Gras. "I'm not sure how many parents were able to make it here tonight," she said.

But several speakers rose to offer their support, arguing that a pre-K-8 model eases the difficulty of middle school adolescents and helps them achieve academically.

Christy Aymani said she had found success for her children in K-8 schools. 

"Support provided in a K-8 environment is why I send my younger kids to K-8 schools," she said. "You will see a higher level of achievement, attendance and discipline."

Under the plan, Miller Wall Elementary in Marrero and Live Oak Elementary in Waggaman will close. Catherine Strehle Elementary in Avondale will become an alternative school. Ford Middle School and Cherbonnier-Rillieux Elementary will be converted to pre-K-8 schools and will absorb some students from Live Oak and Strehle.

Some students from Ford will be sent to Cherbonnier and Stella Worley Middle School, and some students from Cherbonnier will also switch to Ford.

The other major changes will happen in Kenner, where four elementary schools and one middle will all be converted to the new format. Theodore Roosevelt Middle will add elementary students, while A.C. Alexander, John James Audubon, Bissonet Plaza and Granville T. Woods will shift from elementary schools to pre-K-8 campuses.

The school system has 11 traditional middle schools. Next year, it will have eight. The number of pre-K-8 schools will increase from six to 15 under the plan.


Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.