In 2007, Lafayette Academy Charter School had 27 broken windows, smelled of urine and was failing academically by state standards. It suffered the consequences of years of neglect, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and an ill-fated decision by its new charter group to hire a for-profit management operation that didn’t fulfill its promises for rejuvenation. Many of its 680 students ran the halls like unsupervised orphans, nearly two-thirds of its fourth graders failed the state’s LEAP tests and half of its teachers quit.
In 2010, this same school won an automatic three-year charter renewal from the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the only charter school to do so in the state. In December, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek praised the school for “high expectations, commitment and demonstrated results” when he gave the school an award identifying it as a “center for excellence.”
In only three years, Lafayette Academy’s fourth graders jumped from a 42 percent passage rate on state LEAP tests to 100 percent. Its student body swelled to 810, making it the largest elementary school in New Orleans, and its teacher retention climbed to 90 percent.
Lafayette Academy’s transformation followed the appointment of Mickey Landry, 61, a native son and University of New Orleans graduate, who soon demonstrated that a strong leader can turn around a failing school, given the authority and determination to do so.
Landry’s experience turning around private schools in New Hampshire and Colorado served him well when he arrived in the summer of 2007 to take over the deteriorating redbrick school on Carrollton Avenue that once educated his 94-year-old father-in-law. Having been raised in the 9th Ward in a house that his grandfather built, a sense of duty gripped him when Katrina left the school system even in more disarray than it was in before the storm, he says. He had already decided to return to his hometown to do whatever he could to help with the city’s recovery when a search firm hired by the Choice Foundation, Lafayette Academy’s charter operator, identified him as a good fit to take over the struggling school.
Landry says he was willing to remove debris or gut houses, but he ended up with “the turnaround of all turnarounds.”
“When we took over, all the walls were either Pepto-Bismol pink or a horrible green color. The odor was horrific, and the flooring was rotting,” he says. “Everything about the building was telling these kids, ‘You don’t matter,’ and the kids picked up on that. They were acting that way. We had to show these kids that they were important to us.”
He immediately went to work hiring new faculty and transforming the building to reflect the persona of the serious institution he planned to create. Now, the kindergarten-through-seventh-grade school has one of the highest academic growth rates in the state and a manicured building that matches the starched formality of Landry’s own crisp white shirt and tie. Newly planted white azaleas bloomed out front in late March, and the flight of steps to the main lobby gleamed with the high gloss of multiple coats of gray paint. Classroom floors are painted what the staff calls Mickey tan and Mickey blue, a soothing cream and violet-blue that reflect Landry’s belief that color unconsciously affects behavior.
And maybe it does. The hallways are now quiet and the students orderly. Even usually restless seventh graders listened in silence as an English teacher read to them in class recently.
Landry’s own demeanor undoubtedly influences his staff of mostly veteran teachers and young charges. His firm but open manner exudes an old-fashioned, father-knows-best aura that brings apparent respect and often affection.
In a fourth-grade math classroom, he asked for someone to define “probability,” the task of the day, and when many hands shot up he instructed the volunteer to stand and address him formally, an instruction that was followed with enthusiasm. In the hallway, he encountered a group of first-grade students on their way to a different classroom.
When they passed in single file, Landry high-fived the boys and gave hugs to the girls who wanted one.
Most students attending Lafayette Academy are from the nearby neighborhoods of Hollygrove, Gert Town and an area locals often call Pigeon Town, which Landry says is a mispronunciation of Pension Town, an area between Claiborne Avenue and the river near the Orleans-Jefferson Parish boundary that was settled by African-American Union soldiers after the Civil War. About 96 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, Landry says, and 94 students are homeless.
Though the students he had supervised in the immediate past were from upper-middle class families, which paid up to $25,000 a year in tuition, Landry was no stranger to his much-less affluent New Orleans clientele. As a former English teacher at Carver High School and Orleans Parish prison, he recognized quickly that his new charges needed more than just academic guidance. He says that the student’s parents often work two jobs and don’t have the time, and possibly the money, to get the kind of mental and health care that their kids often need. With these problems in mind, Landry hired a full-time nurse, two social workers and arranged for hearing and vision screenings to identify any mental or health impairments that could affect learning.
“Back in the 1970s when I was teaching at Carver and my wife at McDonogh 19, we would shake our heads and say, ‘The only way to change these schools is to blow them up and start over again,’’’ Landry says. “And that’s just what Katrina did. The results have been irrefutable. Our students have better opportunities now than they ever had.”