Langston Hughes Academy, the first new public school in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, wasn’t quite ready for its August debut. Concrete front steps took four attempts to get right. Two floors of furniture couldn’t be delivered as scheduled. Volunteer efforts had to be canceled, and when the help was needed there weren’t enough volunteers available.
A few days before, state officials, including the governor, dedicated the school in an historic ceremony – pizza boxes still littered the stained concrete floors. A sense of urgency electrified hallways so clean they were blinding.
A teacher with the word “Alabama” emblazoned across her shirt copied school materials. Nearby, a woman organized the office’s front desk in a T-shirt that read, “This white shirt is Green.” Down the hall, the principal, wearing a Harvard Business School T-shirt, encased chair legs in rubber shoes. A kid on skates whizzed past a man stacking empty cardboard boxes. The man wore no identifying labels, but leather slides implied he was not a janitor.
“I’m kind of like the president of the board,” says Mickey Allweiss, a Poydras Street lawyer who has headed the school’s governing board since Langston Hughes won its Recovery School District charter in 2007. “Isn’t this place great or what?”
“Great” is an apt word for this 75,000-square-foot, modernist structure on Trafalgar Street with a second floor view of the New Orleans Fair Grounds. It is the first of 19 new schools to be constructed with FEMA recovery funds in the $700 million first phase of the school master plan. The long-range plan, however, includes $2.3 billion in construction and renovation projects that have yet to be financed.
To state officials, Langston Hughes Academy, a kindergarten-through-seventh grade charter school, symbolizes what they believe is the future of New Orleans’ educational landscape, a system of up-to-date schools staffed with excellent principals and teachers.
For Principal John Alford, moving to the new building is the final leg of a two-year journey that included slowly increasing grade levels from fifth and sixth graders to eight grades in three temporary locations: a 2007 summer session at Tulane University; about two months at Thurgood Marshall Middle School on Canal Street and then the modular campus next door. “And our final move – thank you, Jesus – is in our permanent building,” he says.
The new school, located on its original site, is state-of-the-art. It has “green” utility systems, cutting-edge instructional technology and a style to fit the 21st century. It is slated to be the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified school in the state, a prestigious status for environmentally designed buildings. That designation requires such details as: planting special grass that doesn’t require much watering, temperature control masters and motion sensors to turn on the lights.
Visitors enter the building through a light-filled atrium. The first floor has scored concrete floors, a popular modernist alternative to tile. Windows let in light from second floor panes of clear and colored glass. Random touches of blue, orange and brown echo the unexpected color combinations of the classroom hallways.
Concrete block walls are painted in shades of avocado and rust. Turquoise metal lockers add to a pop art look that reflects the youth of the elementary school children who will occupy it.
Even the play areas are New Age. Kindergarten classrooms have green spaces just outside exterior glass doors so the small kids can have a safe place to release pent up energy during the day.
The teachers love the equipment. The computer lab is stocked with two-dozen Dell computers. Each classroom has a Promethean Board – an electronic white board used for showing power point lectures and animated teaching materials.
“I’m so excited,” says Lilly Darche, a third-year teacher from the East Coast who was brought to New Orleans by Teach NOLA, a nonprofit group founded to recruit and train new teachers. “There will be so many things that will be more visual.”
The Promethean Board, for example, allows Darche to show an animated program to teach second grade students coin skills. The program projects images of piggy banks. A touch brings the coins out of a bank and students are instructed to put the coin in another piggy bank dedicated to the same type of coin. If a student tries to put a quarter into a bank dedicated to dimes, it will not stay, she says.
The school’s sleek and artsy style is reminiscent of the former structure. Built a half-century ago, the original building also was modernist, the low-slung style of the mid-century with wood paneled walls. It was originally named after Edward Douglass White, a Louisiana born Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was renamed in the 1980s for the poet Langston Hughes.
After the name change, school leaders began emphasizing art instruction. In the cafeteria, students crafted tiles depicting Hughes’ most famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” They also decorated a front exterior wall with scenes painted in the “outsider” style of black folk artists.
After the floodwaters following Katrina dumped eight feet of water in the building and reduced it to a muddy, moldy shell, officials decided to demolish and rebuild. The cafeteria tiles couldn’t be saved, Alford says, but the exterior scenes were removed and now await a permanent location inside the building. In the meantime, a similar hand-painted mural is displayed behind glass in the foray, a welcome reminder of the artsy spirit of the former school.
“What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes asked in one of his most famous poems. He asked this question back in the days when racial inequality meant substandard schools for black children. Today, however, about 500 New Orleans children are attending an academically focused, state-of-the art school in an education system that’s slowly recovering.