Administrators at James Weldon Johnson Elementary School know all too well what to do when someone is killed by gunfire in the streets around the school. First, lock down all the individual classrooms. Check the bathrooms to make sure no children are unaccounted for. Move lunch and PE inside the classrooms, and close the outdoor hallways, yards and community garden for the day. “The students are totally resilient,” said Johnson Elementary Principal Wanda Brooks. “Unfortunately, they’ve gone through this several times before.”
KIPP Believe College Prep on South Carrollton is headed to a new school building in Gentilly, and Benjamin Banneker Elementary in the Riverbend is slated for a new campus in Hollygrove, according to school assignment plans being aired publicly by the Recovery School District this week. Those two changes are the most significant for Uptown campuses among the recommendations that the RSD will be hosting public hearings on this week. Many other RSD schools around Uptown will essentially be unaffected, and some of the higher-profile schools run through the Orleans Parish School Board are not included in the list. KIPP’s highest-performing middle school, KIPP Believe College Prep, is slated for the old Stuart Bradley site on Humanity Street just off Interstate 610, where one of the city’s new $22.5 million school buildings will be constructed from FEMA money. The move will leave its current site, the McNair High School campus on the corner of South Carrollton and Birch, as an “opportunity” campus — suitable as a temporary site while another campus is being renovated, but not slated for any renovations or long-term assignments itself.
Stung by the pain of a broken promise, members of the James Weldon Johnson Elementary School community did their utmost Wednesday night to convince the new chief of the Recovery School District to resurrect a plan to move their campus to a safer, more prestigious site a few blocks away. The Priestley site on Leonidas would symbolize social change, many said — traditionally, white schools in New Orleans were built on major thoroughfares like Leonidas, while black schools were tucked behind them in the neighborhood, like Johnson. But more importantly, the Priestley site is in a safer part of the neighborhood, they said. “The crime is very high here,” said Johnson principal Wanda Brooks. “This school year, we had a killing in the back by the cafeteria.”
Which Uptown New Orleans school buildings need attention the most and how to divide the money for building and renovating them was debated by motivated and skeptical crowd of nearly 200 public-education supporters Monday night.
Supporters of moving Johnson Elementary to the old Priestley site will make their case to state and parish school officials Monday night at a public hearing on school plans in School Board District 6, which includes the Carrollton, Audubon and university neighborhoods in Uptown New Orleans.
The old Priestley school is “a spectacular piece of property, and the amount of imagination that’s been directed toward what ought to be done with the property has been zilch,” said neighbor Robbie Robertson, frustrated by a lack of specifics on Priestley’s proposed reuse at a meeting about the future of New Orleans school buildings in the Recovery School District.