The Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orléans received City Planning Commission approval last week to increase its footprint within the St. Henry’s Catholic Church complex with the use of a building for its middle school.
The private French immersion school occupies multiple buildings and courtyards within the church grounds for its early childhood, kindergarten, elementary and middle schools. To give the middle school students room to grow in a building of their own, the school wants to lease the Blessed Pauline building at 4219 Constance St.
Plans show the interior will be renovated into four classrooms, a science and technology lab, a music room and three offices. Educational facilities are a conditional use under the building’s zoning, requiring city approval before the work starts.
The City Planning Commissioner approved the use unanimously, with commissioners Katie Witry and Lorey Flick recusing themselves from the vote. Now it goes to the City Council for a hearing and final approval. No one spoke in opposition to the plans at the recent CPC hearing.
The two-story historic building is currently used by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Knights of Columbus. After the renovation, the music room will be a shared space, with the Knights of Columbus using it after school hours, according to plans filed with the city.
Right now, of course, the middle school students can’t be found on campus during this era of virtual classes. Officials are planning to begin renovation in the spring, assuming the conditional use is approved, and have the building ready for the promise of fall in-person instruction in the 2021-22 school year.
When the plans were introduced to neighbors in November, several residents in the East Riverside area expressed concern that the school was adding another grade and expanding beyond its current 300 or so students.
The four additional classrooms, school officials said, will be used to allow for smaller, more socially distanced classes.
“Covid-19 has changed the way all schools utilize space and EB is no different,” Head of School Pierre-Loic Denichou said via email in an exchange with the neighbors. “Our response to the new normal of a post-Covid requires increased distance between students which necessitates more classroom space for each student. This need for more classroom space cannot be met in the existing buildings of our campus.”
The school uses four buildings in the church complex for its La Creche for ages 18 months to 2 years; Ecole Maternelle for ages 2 through 5; Ecole Primaire for ages 6 through 10; and Collège, or middle school, for the 11- through 13-year-olds.
Denichou said there are no plans to add more students.
“As a French immersion school teaching a French curriculum, EB’s growth and enrollment functions differently than most primary schools. Our class size shrinks with each year as students age and switch to other schools to switch to an American curriculum,” he said. “Furthermore, a student that wishes to attend our school after pre-school must demonstrate fluency in French which represents a high barrier to entry. So a kindergarten class of 30 students may be 12-15 students eight years later.”
Three new staff members will be hired, and the building comes with three parking spaces on the Milan Street side. Plans call for adding a bike rack with room for 11 bikes.
Combined, the site has a total of 41 off-street parking spaces with 26 total classrooms, creating a slight excess of parking for the whole site, according to Planning Commission staff. Together the combined sites have 35 off-street bicycle parking spaces, fewer than the required 78 spaces for the entire site.
The Blessed Pauline building is owned by the St. Henry’s congregation, parishioners known for their steadfast devotion to their church, occupying it and refusing to leave after the archdiocese closed it in a 2008 consolidation. Four years later, it opened for weekday Masses though it remains melded into St. Stephen’s parish three blocks away on Napoleon Avenue.
The two churches were built mere blocks from each other in the mid-19th century because of language, according to history of the church by Alvah J. Green III. The larger St. Stephen Church had a French-speaking congregation, and St. Henry’s provided a place for the neighborhood’s German-speaking residents to worship and educate their children. Now it’s French that is spoken in the historic buildings.