Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- A change affecting nearly 35 of the 85 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans will realign grade levels to a more uniform structure, ending eighth grade programs at elementary schools and shifting them instead to high schools, the Archdiocese announced Tuesday.

The changes, which will take effect for the 2015-16 school year, are part of a strategic plan the Catholic school system has been working on for several months. The policy means that Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese will now educate students from pre-kindergarten through seventh grades, and Catholic high schools will serve 8th grade through 12th grade students.

Thirty elementary schools in the Archdiocese currently have eighth grade programs, educating about 700 students, while nearly 3,000 students attend eighth grade at the high school level, the Archdiocese said.

Among the schools affected by the change are two of the city's most prominent: Holy Cross, which since the 1970s has offered grades five through twelve; and St. Augustine, which educates students in grades six through twelve. Also affected are Brother Martin and Holy Rosary, which offer grades seven through twelve.

Holy Cross headmaster Charles DiGange said in a statement on the school's website that the school will explore the feasibility of becoming a K-12 school. DiGange's statement said a request by Holy Cross for an exemption to the change was denied, along with requests from all other schools.

'It has always been Holy Cross' intention to cooperate with the Archdiocese of New Orleans to facilitate a path forward that fosters the promotion of Catholic education throughout our city, while simultaneously augmenting the ability of Holy Cross School to fulfill its mission,' DiGange said. 'It is in that spirit of cooperation that Holy Cross has agreed to consider a long-range plan that retains and strengthens our current middle and high school programs, while working towards eventual compliance with the Archdiocese's grade level structure requirement of a K-12 school.'

Dr. Jan Lancaster, Catholic schools superintendent, said the eighth grade change has long been discussed as part of strategic planning sessions and was viewed as the best way to make all schools and curricula standard across the system.

'It was difficult because it meant more transitions for children, with schools starting at different levels, and it was a situation that for years people have talked about as something that we needed to look at,' Lancaster said.

Schools like Holy Cross that applied for exemptions to the uniform structure were informed last week that the only exemptions to be granted were for elementary schools not physically able to include Pre-K levels on campus.

'All of our schools will be making some sacrifices as part of this plan for the good of Catholic education in New Orleans,' said Archbishop Gregory Aymond in a statement.

Another affected school, Christian Brothers, said that it will go to a K-7 model, despite its efforts to keep its current fifth through seventh grade programs.

Lancaster said that delaying the changes until fall 2015 means that schools will have time to adjust their structures and she said schools with more than one grade level affected can choose to add on an additional year, to essentially graduate those students out.

Lancaster said the Archdiocese is working with school leaders on plans to implement the changes, which are expected to be finalized by April 30.

'If a school chooses not to comply with the archdiocesan grade level structure, it will indicate their choice to no longer be part of our family of Catholic schools,' Aymond said. 'While this would be regrettable and they would be missed in our family, we would respect their desire for autonomy.'

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