LESSONS IN RENEWAL
Ten days after Hurricane Katrina, St. Dominic School Principal Adrianne LeBlanc and her brother stepped out of a boat and slogged in hip waders through the Lakeview campus, still inundated by 5 feet of black water. A month later, she got National Guard troops to gut the place.
St. Dominic came back to Harrison Avenue in May 2006.
St. Paul's Episcopal School came back next, in August 2006.
A month after the storm, with the city nearly empty, St. Paul's parents and staff donned gloves and masks to scrub away Katrina sludge and take stock. They also hired a contractor who shared their motivation, said the Rev. Will Hood, St. Paul's rector. Crews from Carl E. Woodward Construction "rolled through this place like it was 'Extreme Makeover,' laboring around the clock," Hood said.
Just around the corner, the neighborhood's public school, Edward Hynes Elementary, has enjoyed no such quick homecoming. Now a charter school under the Orleans Parish School Board, its old building on Harrison Avenue sits in cluttered ruin, awaiting demolition scheduled for this month. Students from Lakeview ZIP code 70124, who get priority admission, can take buses to attend Hynes Charter, now a vagabond school that was housed Uptown last year and will move to Gentilly this year.
The school won't return to Lakeview until late 2009 if everything proceeds on schedule.
While the public campus sits idle, the private schools have provided an anchor for families and businesses moving back into Lakeview's main commercial district and a linchpin for the neighborhood recovery at large. That it will take the School Board three years longer to reopen Hynes than its privately run neighbors underscores the difficulty city agencies have had resolving red tape and financing issues to produce action.
Quality schools, perhaps more than any institution, have the power to draw families back and unite communities. During the much-touted neighborhood-planning process, residents citywide emphasized the link between good schools and strong communities. Nearly every rebuilding plan revolves around schools.
Yet those plans ring hollow in Lakeview and many other New Orleans neighborhoods that surround blighted public schools. The state-run Recovery School District has dozens of severely damaged properties but so far has officially condemned only one, Langston Hughes Elementary School, near the New Orleans Fair Grounds. Five Orleans Parish School Board campuses, including Hynes, have been deemed damaged beyond repair. None have been torn down, much less rebuilt.
It almost seems unfair to compare the progress of a New Orleans public school with that of more agile private schools, especially those with intrepid leaders such as LeBlanc and Hood. Few public officials even bother to contest the sluggishness of local government.
"We lumber like a mastodon," Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz said, noting how, since Katrina, the city's public schools faced FEMA bureaucracy and an added tangle of confusion that resulted from the state's post-storm takeover of most of the city's public schools.
The public school system's biggest failure may have been its inability to harness the elbow grease and ingenuity of principals, parents and neighbors, who successfully led the comebacks of both of Lakeview's private schools. That's particularly true for Hynes, which, unlike many New Orleans public schools before the flood, boasted an active and cohesive parents group, much of it middle class, a potentially invaluable source of donations, volunteerism and political clout.
Immediately after the storm, Hynes parents reacted just like the private-school parents down the street. They volunteered to gut and clean their school but the Orleans Parish School Board told them no, citing liability concerns and the need for FEMA to assess damages before any repairs. Hynes' one-story brick buildings now resemble a time capsule, filled with silt-coated rubbish and flood-tossed furniture. Dry-erase boards still list homework assignments given the Friday before Hurricane Katrina. Children's chairs still sit atop their desks, right where they left them that final weekend. Neighbor Libby Black, who put two children through Hynes, can't stand to look at it.
"It breaks my heart because that school was a real center of the community."
Parents roll up sleeves
In May 2006, a flotilla of parents moved back to St. Dominic School using trucks, sport utility vehicles and station wagons filled with books and furniture. On their way, the caravan passed St. Paul's Episcopal School, where construction crews crawled over the property, swinging hammers and pushing saws. The two schools followed remarkably similar paths that began with temporary school sites. St. Dominic held classes at Holy Rosary Academy on Esplanade Avenue from October 2005 through May 2006; St. Paul's taught students at the unflooded First Baptist Church on Canal Boulevard from January to May 2006.
St. Dominic started early, just six weeks after the flood, when a group of volunteers met up at Holy Rosary to scrub classrooms, using a crawfish pot to boil water for floor wax. A parent recalled seeing LeBlanc cleaning the playground with a firehose, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and shrimp boots.
The school's leadership never considered abandoning the Lakeview campus. "Adrianne LeBlanc is the kind of leader that would not allow that to happen unless she was pretty much dead," said Timothy Todd, the school's longtime maintenance supervisor.
St. Paul's had an equally devoted leader in Hood, an inveterate Navy chaplain who had served in Iraq before arriving in New Orleans in January 2006.
"He's a military guy, so he's used to getting things done," said Sylvia Parks, the church's spokeswoman.
'It was a good school'
Outside, the air echoed with pounding hammers rebuilding homes. But inside the old Hynes school, flies buzzed around Room 28, a second-grade class taught by Ms. Murry, according to a moldering sign. The walls bore neatly printed handmade signs, laying down classroom rules and teaching how to use a dictionary.
On the shelves: stacks of flashcards, reams of sodden paper, clothespins, yarn and handmade math games in plastic bags. On a small table in the corner, two filthy computers tilted sideways.
For two weeks, in August 2005, one desk there belonged to Alexander Dines, who had a pet fish named Fishy and lived in a small house. Laminated papers on the floor disclose that it also was home to Tiara Gross, whose pink-and-purple shotgun held her and her fish, Girly Girl. And to Quionne Dabney, who lived an apartment with her fish, Queen. The papers had been the first exercise, the icebreaker, for each child's "second-grade memory book," said Jane Murry, who taught in that classroom for 14 years.
Even after 10 feet of water flowed through them, classrooms such as Murry's told a story of careful instruction and stimulated children.
"We walked in, and you could tell: It was a good school," said Mary Filardo, head of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit 21st Century School Fund, who walked through the school in January 2006. "There were papier-mache animals hanging from the ceiling; lots of paper, scissors and paste; all the things that tell you that kids aren't being told to just sit in their seats, be quiet and do their rote work."
Sacrificing to return
In October 2006, St. Dominic Principal LeBlanc remembered unlocking the doors at Holy Rosary and seeing a fourth-grade boy, who ran toward her and jumped into her arms. The school's reopening gave everyone a purpose, she said, remembering how a group of 10 devoted parents moved 2,000 library books down three flights of stairs.
Returning quickly involved sacrifices. After St. Dominic moved back to Lakeview, students used outdoor portable toilets until November 2006 and carried bag lunches all year, which they ate outside in tents. At St. Paul's, Lakeview Deli brought in hot lunches everyday, but teachers taught the older students in temporary trailers until October 2006.
Built in 1960, St. Paul's main two-story building a brick rectangle stretches from the church to Hemenway Hall, a structure finished in 2003 that includes a gymnasium and two stories of classrooms that wrap like an "L" around the gym. Behind those were four smaller structures. A pair of single-story buildings will not be rebuilt, and the fate of a third remains uncertain. The last, the more newly constructed Suzie Dunn Early Childhood Center, a one-story building, should reopen soon.
"We're a lot further ahead than many schools are," Parks said. "But we're not where we want to be."
Also built in 1960, St. Dominic's campus encompasses six brick buildings, most of them built around a square with a quiet courtyard. The school uses four structures: the main school building, the primary-school building, Aquinas Hall and an auditorium. The other two buildings are the church one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese and a three-story priory where 20 Dominican priests lived before the storm.
By the end of June 2006, St. Dominic had renovated all of the flooded ground floors except for Aquinas Hall. While families in the church and community still struggle, financially and psychologically, St. Dominic's provides a beacon of progress.
"This has been the one good, solid thing: to be home in Lakeview," LeBlanc said.
Tradition of activism
Like their counterparts in neighboring private schools, Hynes parents once had a hand in everything. "We were sewing our own auditorium curtains before the storm," parent Angela Daliet said.
Parental activism had become tradition, according to Hynes parent Crystal Morgan. "You don't send your child off to school and think that the rest is the teacher's job."
Teachers were similarly devoted and have brought that experience to the charter school, she said, which hired most of its teachers from "the old Hynes."
A couple of months after the hurricane, Daliet helped form the Re-Open Hynes Committee to lobby for a 2006 return to Lakeview. Once those chances dimmed, she supported efforts to charter Hynes, which all three of her sons attend.
Daliet admitted pangs of envy as parents from St. Dominic and St. Paul's brought their schools back. "I cheered them on, but it was hard to watch," she said.
Hynes parents simply couldn't make the same kind of headway.
As Hynes Charter School got ready to open at a temporary campus across town most parents shifted their energy there, where their efforts wouldn't be for naught. The old building on Harrison Avenue was left to ruin, unused except as a school-bus stop for Lakeview children who head to Hynes' temporary Uptown site. Jennifer Collins' two sons waited for the bus there.
"We're living in a trailer, and they were waiting for the bus outside the old Hynes school. It wasn't good for them," she said.
As the grass became more overgrown, parents and neighbors convinced the School Board to mow the lawn. A small victory, and the only one.
Stan Smith, the School Board's chief financial officer, said badly damaged properties such as Hynes have "been less of a priority" than repairing and opening schools that could more quickly reopen to serve displaced students returning to New Orleans.
Now the board can start planning for the long term, he said.
But Mary Filardo from the 21st Century School Fund, which advises urban school districts on facilities planning, questioned the necessity of Hynes' four-year exile. In early 2006, she asked two construction companies to tour the school's main concrete-block building, and they found it solid.
"It has terrazzo floors, glazed-tile walls," she said. "Why would you just tear it down?" She recognized that FEMA declared the building more than 51 percent damaged. "But if you can get it like new for little more than 50 cents on the dollar, why would you spend the whole dollar?" she asked.
Black, who lives near Hynes, also questioned the need for demolition.
"I had 5 feet of water in my house," she said. "So I can't believe that a cement-block building needs to be torn down."
Michelle Douglas, the principal at Hynes Charter, empathizes with the nostalgia but also knows firsthand the shortcomings of the Hynes building, which had decayed from years of deferred maintenance.
"Everyone's still grieving about the building at 990 Harrison," she said. "But that building was in pitiful shape even before the storm."
FEMA engineers, in their first estimates, dated October 2006, suggested $2 million in repairs. The School Board, too, had at first requested bids for renovation. But in December, FEMA's allotment increased to $8.5 million as engineers uncovered hidden damages and changed their recommendation to demolition, FEMA spokeswoman Diane Perry said. The increase to FEMA's current allocation of $10.5 million reflected increased construction costs, among other things.
Throughout the process, the school system has done a poor job of keeping Hynes parents and the surrounding community informed, which added to the frustration, Black said. "When I see someone from the school, I always ask, 'What's going on?' " Black said. "Because I'm here in the dark. I could be out here stumping for Hynes, but I don't know what needs doing."
Copyright 2007, The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation
From: The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, July 6, 2007, National,
About the time National Guard troops were gutting Lakeview's St. Dominic School post-Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board was declaring that it had no plans to open any public schools on the east bank that school year.
It was October 2005, and the School Board was giving up.
With that, the fate of Edward Hynes Elementary located just a few blocks away from St. Dominic was sealed. Although parents asked to be allowed to clean out Hynes to prepare for it to be rebuilt, the school system said no thanks.
Officials cited the usual sort of governmental excuses: liability concerns, the need for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess damage. The parents switched gears and got the School Board to make Hynes a charter school, which is operating temporarily on an Uptown campus.
Almost 23 months after Katrina struck, the Hynes campus still hasn't been touched. It hasn't even been locked up to keep people from wandering through classrooms ransacked by floodwaters.
Beyond the obvious health and safety risks posed by a flood-ravaged school being left to fester for months on end, Hynes is emblematic of the can't-do attitude of the Orleans Parish school system.
Free of a visionless bureaucracy, St. Dominic began holding classes within two months of the storm at Holy Rosary Academy on Esplanade Avenue and moved back into its repaired building in May 2006.
St. Paul's Episcopal School took a similar path. A month after Katrina, parents and the school staff cleaned out the flooded school. Students were back on campus last August.
No matter what Orleans Parish School Board members say, there is no excuse for Hynes to be lagging so far behind its two neighboring parochial schools.
St. Dominic and St. Paul's have had to deal with insurers and FEMA and all the difficulties inherent in rebuilding post-Katrina. Public school officials can talk all they want about having their hands tied by officialdom, but St. Bernard Parish Superintendent Doris Voitier managed to navigate those same channels successfully.
She had a school open in her devastated parish by November, just 11 weeks after Katrina's floodwaters inundated nearly every building in the parish.
Sure, St. Bernard Parish has a small school system. But so does the Orleans Parish School Board these days.
Because of its disinterest in quickly reopening schools after Katrina and a track record of failure before the storm the system lost control of all but eight schools to the state after the flood. One of the schools it held onto was Hynes.
With only a handful of schools to run and the Hynes parents taking responsibility for chartering their own school after the storm, the school system's inertia in Lakeview is incomprehensible. System officials argue that they have had to concentrate on getting non-flooded buildings up and running first, but there is no reason you can't work on two tracks at once.
Hynes finally is slated for demolition this month, just a few weeks shy of the two-year anniversary of Katrina. A new building is targeted to open by late 2009, if all goes well.
That will be more than three years after St. Dominic and St. Paul's reopened a few blocks away. The quick return of those schools has helped spark the renewal of the Harrison Avenue corridor and other parts of Lakeview.
The fact that private citizens working without the constraints of a bureaucracy were successful where government was not is hardly a surprise. Especially not post-Katrina, when almost every arm of government has been paralyzed by a lack of resourcefulness and vision.
Ms. Voitier in St. Bernard Parish is the all-too-rare public official who looked for ways to overcome obtacles instead of offering up excuses after Katrina. For that she was honored in May with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
She and other parish leaders accomplished what they did in those early weeks after the storm without help from state or federal government, she said. "We had no patience for excuses or bureaucracy," she told the audience at the awards ceremony in Boston.
From that one makeshift campus of trailers, generators and a tent used as a cafeteria, the system will have grown to five schools with 4,000 students by the fall. "We had to open schools because that's what school people do," she said.
That is one of the key differences between Ms. Voitier and Orleans Parish school officials. Where they found reasons not to act, she found a way to start getting a devastated community back on its feet. So did the school leaders and parents at St. Dominic and St. Paul's.
The parents at Hynes are trying to do the same. The School Board ought to help them or get out of their way.
Copyright 2007, The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation
From: The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, July 8, 2007, Metro,
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