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Empty shells littering floors are a reminder of when the school was used for police training.
STAFF PHOTOS BY CHRIS GRANGER
Una Anderson, left, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, Jean Fischer of Carrollton United and Sue Burge of local nonprofit agency School to Career Inc., look at slides found on a classroom floor in abandoned Alfred C. Priestley Middle School. Priestley is among New Orleans’ first wave of charter applications.
By Steve Ritea
Pigeons roost in the light fixtures hanging in third-floor classrooms of the long-abandoned Alfred C. Priestley Middle School. On a floor dotted with the birds’ droppings and littered with books and computer equipment from another era, a collection of photographic slides strewn about offer frames of the life that filled the building a generation ago: smiling chil-
dren gathered for a Christmas celebration, a man wiping a little girl’s nose, a meeting of adults clad in polyester suits with wide ties or sporting beehive hairdos. “This is a community’s memories,” said Orleans Parish School Board member Una Anderson, bending over to gather up each one, “right here.” In a district where many schools were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, an undamaged building like Priestley has
An occasional series following the start-up of the Priestly charter high school
See SCHOOL, A-9
XXXDAY, XXXX XX, 2005
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2005
H U R R I C A N E A F T E R M AT H
School will resemble one in St. Louis
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suddenly become much more than a eyesore. A Carrollton neighborhood improvement association, spearheading the charter school effort, now hopes the building will become a sign of renewal for the city’s longtroubled education system. On Oct. 29, the Orleans Parish School Board approved a first wave of charter applications, including Priestley’s. Now, with the Legislature’s approval of a state takeover that would transform a majority of the district’s 117 schools into charters, the landscape of public education in New Orleans is poised for a swift and radical change.
ffe rs on Pa lea ris LE ns h ON Pa JO ris LIE IDA h S T Or
SCHOOL, from A-1
Former Priestley School will serve as new charter school site
CA RR OL LT ON
How it works
Chartering schools is common but frequently not fully understood. The concept is simple: Just as groups charter a bus for a trip, community groups, businesses or governments can take over the operation of a school to educate children in their own way, if their plan gets approval from a local or state school board. The state takeover targeted low-performing schools with the idea that finding universities and private firms to charter them will improve their performance. While charter schools are always subject to certain standards, like academic performance, the group creating the school has a good deal of freedom to run it however they want. They can use whatever books they like, teach unique subjects and use different teaching methods. Some schools, like the recently chartered Audubon Charter School, offer a French curriculum. Others, like New Orleans Math and Science, emphasize a few subjects. Priestley, which will be converted to a high school, will offer something unique and sorely needed in post-Katrina New Orleans: an emphasis on careers in architecture and construction. “Billions of dollars are going to be spent in construction here,” said Ray Nichols, a retired business consultant who expects the school to open in September to 100 freshmen, expanding one grade a year. “If we do this right, we can create a group of people who can take advantage of that.” For many of the city’s recently chartered schools — Lusher, Ben Franklin High, Audubon — chartering is a less dramatic change, because they were previously operating as district schools and already have teachers, principal and students in place. Chartering Priestley is an entirely different matter. All the chartering group has is an old building and a stack of paperwork outlining what it wants to do. The first thing it needs, experts say, is money.
STAFF PHOTOS BY CHRIS GRANGER
Orleans Parish School Board member Una Anderson talks with people living across the street from the former Alfred C. Priestley Middle School. Several said they would go to the school if it reopened as a construction charter school.
shells still litter the floors of several classrooms. But mostly it had just become a blighted old brick building that loomed over Pigeon Town, a neighborhood that had become a hotbed of drug activity and, in the months before Katrina hit, was logging a record murder rate. About a year ago, members of a community group called Carrollton United targeted Priestley with the idea that doing something with it might help improve life in the neighborhood there. “Along with blight comes the crime,” said Mary Green, a member of the group. The group members put on old clothes, got inside the school to look around and set to work, eventually filling two huge garbage bins with broken furniture and trash.
Then, they started knocking on doors and found that 75 perc en t o f t h e n ei gh b or ho od wanted to see something made of Priestley that would breathe life back into the community. People offered all sorts of ideas for what could occupy the old school — a police substation and a health clinic were among the ideas — but many also suggested turning it back into a school. Looking around the community, Green said, “we identified that everyone wasn’t going to go to college.” A local nonprofit agency dedicated to helping students make the transition from school to work suggested a school emphasizing construction careers, modeled after the one in St. Louis. “In the past people assumed if you had a school that taught trades, it closed off other doors,” said Anderson, who is helping with the effort. The construction charter will offer a full academic curriculum for students who decide to take another career path. By last summer organizers had started to shore up some support for the project, but many still expected it would take some time to garner the financial and political support needed before Priestley could reopen. Then Katrina hit. Two months later, the School Board unanimously approved Priestley’s charter along with 19 others. “I think there’s a door open to innovation in education that was forced open by Katrina,” Anderson said.
Steve Ritea can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3396.
‘Billions of dollars are going to be spent in construction here,’ says Ray Nichols, a retired business consultant who expects the school to open in September to 100 freshmen, expanding one grade a year. ‘If we do this right, we can create a group of people who can take advantage of that.’
“There are already foundations that have told people interested in starting a school in New Orleans that they’re willing to help,” she said. Nichols said her group has already had several promising conversations with foundations and hope the federal government will step up as well. business, and it’s very daunting and that’s why most that do actually happen end up succeeding,” Allen said. “It’s not for the meek.” Even if the chartering group can’t get all $10 million in time to finish renovating the building by fall, there are other options, Nichols said, including using temporary trailers as classrooms or renovating the first floor for initial use. Adults who enroll in night classes could help renovate the school building as part of their coursework, he said. Nichols’ effort closely mirrors one in St. Louis, where Terry Eivens of the local Associated General Contractors chapter helped ready an abandoned school. This past summer the Construction Careers Center graduated its first class of students. The school now has an enrollment of 335. Some of those students went on to college, while others went into apprenticeship programs, he said, starting at $14 or $15 an hour.
Once opened, New Orleans would be the second city in the nation to have a construction charter school. The Orleans Parish School Board voted to close Priestley in 1980, consolidating it into Sophie Wright Middle School after finding both schools had too few students. In the years since, Priestley has been used for office space and even tactical training for police officers. Rubber bullets and empty shotgun
Show me the money
Nothing taken for granted
But even after they get that money, there’s a million other things to do. “You have to figure out who’s going to be on your board and figure out the structure of the staffing, then decide things like do teachers get their own desks,” Allen said. “All of those things that typically you find in a school and would take for granted, actually there’s hundreds of considerations.” In short, she said, the task that lies ahead for Priestley — especially if it is going to open in the fall — is not for the faint of heart. “Starting a school is one of the most difficult things anyone will ever do,” she said. “It’s like you’re creating a brand new
“Charters don’t need more money than traditional schools, but they need startup funds because they don’t have the existing infrastructure,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group. By Nichols’ estimation, it will take $10 million to renovate Priestley. Because a startup school cannot float a bond or rely on state education money before it has students, that would normally prove tricky. But with so much national attention focused on the city’s plight, there is likely to be a high level of support for the effort to bring back Priestley, Allen said.
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