Carrollton residents remain unclear on whether the thousands of families who live between Broadway, South Claiborne and the river could ultimately be left without a single open-admission school, after Recovery School District officials did not show up to a meeting Saturday about the future of James Weldon Johnson Elementary School.
Five schools currently serve the area, three with open admissions — Johnson, Benjamin Banneker Elementary and KIPP Believe College Prep — and two with varying degrees of selective admissions, Audubon Charter and Lusher. The KIPP school is moving to a site already under construction in Gentilly, and Banneker students will be moving into the new building at the Dunbar site in Hollygrove.
Johnson school leaders and west-Carrollton neighborhood activists have been begging for years to have a school rebuilt at the Priestly site for the Johnson students, with promises made and then withdrawn time and again. Recently, however, the Recovery School District has begun suggesting to those neighborhood leaders that Johnson might be closed altogether, and had planned a Saturday afternoon meeting to discuss the school’s future, drawing a crowd of about three dozen people.
After the publication of a news article at Nola.com that mentioned the meeting Friday, however, Carrollton activist Betty DiMarco said she received a call late last night from Dana Peterson of the Recovery School District, saying he would not attend.
“The RSD is not prepared to come to the community with the press there to give a definitive answer about what they’re going to do,” DiMarco said she was told. “They are very nervous about what is happening. I don’t think they know what they want to do with Johnson school.”
Yma Ferrouillet, a first-grade teacher at Johnson, said the threat of closure has hung over the school for three years. Although the school’s performance score have grown steadily, they remain just beneath the state’s new threshold for failing schools.
“Every year we go through the same thing, all year long, wondering if the school is going to stay open,” Ferrouillet said.
Patrick Young, an organizer with the Orleans Public Education Network advocacy group, said he believes that what the neighborhood has been told is likely still correct, but Saturday’s meeting would have helped ease some of the uncertainty.
“The meeting today was really one question: What’s the plan?” Young said.
With no plans to discuss, the neighborhood group turned to broader issues facing education in New Orleans. Some wondered if the Carrollton neighborhood should attempt to charter the school themselves, but noted the difficulty that community groups have had in obtaining charters. Others wondered if seeking a transfer of the school back to the Orleans Parish School Board might result in more responsive governance, but the law currently only allows that for schools that are not deemed failing.
Finally, the conversation turned again, to Friday’s tragic shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
“I feel like what we are dealing with in this neighborhood is very minute compared to what people in Connecticut are dealing with right now,” DiMarco said, asking for a brief moment of silence. “Not only them, but also for the children in this neighborhood who are subjected to violence and gunfire every day.”
The most recent shooting in the neighborhood was this past week, when a man ran into a home a block from Johnson — less than a block from the small church where Saturday’s meeting was held — and shot someone inside. Ferrouillet said the school has been put on lockdown four times for shootings literally in the street outside the school
“The children have to run into class, crying and all scared,” Ferrouillet said. “Thank God it hasn’t come into the school, but it is right outside.”
While the neighborhood leaders attempt to set up another meeting with the Recovery School District, Young urged the neighborhood members to get involved in Johnson, volunteering whatever services they can offer.
“Everyone is so focused on what happened in Newtown, but we have kids here we can protect,” Young said. “We have kids here we can help.”