The Lycee Francais voted Monday night to enter negotiations with the Recovery School District to lease the former James Weldon Johnson school building as a temporary campus for the next two or three years.
For the last few years while purchasing the Priestley building on Leonidas Street and planning its renovation, the growing Lycee program — which now has 721 students — has struggled to find enough classroom space, expanding from their Patton Street building to next-door St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, and this year opening a new location at Central St. Matthew United Church of Christ on Carrollton Avenue. The Carrollton Avenue location is not large enough for next year’s anticipated enrollment without renovating more of the building, however, and Lycee this year learned that the vacant Johnson building would be available.
The Johnson building was last used as a temporary location — known as “swing space” — for Sophie B. Wright Charter School while their Napoleon Avenue campus was under renovation, but is empty this year. It has 30 classrooms, a cafeteria and a playground, and it also stands about two blocks from the Priestley building.
Lycee still has a multi-year lease for the Carrollton Avenue building, and school officials have not yet determined how they will handle that space, whether to sublease it to another tenant or try to use it in another way, said Lycee board chair Michael Williams. But the advantages of the Johnson campus now seem to good to pass up, Williams said, asking the Lycee board to approve negotiations with the Recovery School District over a lease.
“It is what we have been looking for to bridge the gap,” Williams said. “It is the bridge we have been looking for to get us to Priestley.”
The RSD has suggested that the Johnson building would be available to Lycee for two years and an optional third, without requiring an annual rental fee as long as Lycee paid to maintain the building, said CEO Keith Bartlett. The Johnson building is functionally ready for students, Bartlett said, but Lycee would want to take possession of the building to start cosmetic work by March. Next school year, grades 3 through 7 would move to Johnson, easing the crowded Patton Street campus by leaving only kindergarten through grade 2 there, Bartlett said.
The announcement drew a variety of critical remarks from the small audience Monday night at Lycee’s December board meeting. Alice Ann Krishnan, a Carrollton neighborhood resident, said she and some of her neighbors have mixed feelings about Lycee moving into the Johnson building. They are glad that it won’t be vacant, but frustrated that their children won’t be able to attend unless they are accepted to the Lycee program in kindergarten because of the barrier the French-immersion curriculum presents, Krishnan said, and she urged the board to consider an alternative track into the school for older students.
The Johnson school also had a strong relationship with neighbors through its on-site community garden, which both children from the school and neighbors with no direct connection to Johnson participated in together. Krishnan told the Lycee board that keeping that open relationship with the neighborhood around the garden will help Lycee build relationships.
“It’s very important to people that that garden be revived, and the community be engaged,” Krishnan says.
The RSD has made it clear that they want to see the garden maintained, Bartlett assured her in response, and Lycee is also excited to work with it.
“There’s no discussion of eliminating it — only making it better,” Bartlett said.
Two Lycee fathers said they were concerned about security around the Johnson building, situated in a corner of the neighborhood that has struggled with violent crime, including a fatal shooting outside the school grounds in November 2011. The corner store across the street attracts loiterers, they said, and one of the parents who lives nearby said he regularly sees teens jump the fences onto the vacant property.
Among the work that Lycee plans on if they secure the building, Bartlett said, is reinforcing and raising the height of the fences. They would also screen in the side of the school yard across from the corner store, and are considering hiring full-time security at the building, Bartlett said.
Parent Mary Dwyer said her family was growing weary of the frequent moves for the upper-grade students. More importantly, she said, she hoped the convenience of the Johnson building did not give the leadership an excuse to delay the planned creation of a high school.
“A high school is what I came to this school for, and I sure hope that it happens when it’s said it’s going to happen,” Dwyer said.
The Lycee facilities committee remains “full speed ahead” on the Priestley project, Williams told her, and that work should become much more apparent soon. The board voted Monday night to hire Gulf South to conduct remediation of asbestos at the building in preparation for renovations, to hire Eskew Dumez + Ripple architects to begin work on the renovation drawings now that the campus master plan is complete, and to begin negotiating with an outside firm from Baton Rouge to lead a fundraising campaign to pay for the Priestley renovations.
The Lycee board also congratulated the faculty on their work to earn the school its first ‘A’ School Performance Score from the state this year. Bartlett said that when the A rating was announced by the state last month, the staff gathered the students for an assembly to announce it, but were surprised by the unbridled enthusiasm from the students.
“It was beyond my wildest belief how excited they were about it,” Bartlett said. “I was so, so touched at the way the students received the news.”
Monday’s meeting also included updates on the school’s academics, fundraising and other efforts. To read our live coverage, see below.