Prepping for the Future
Area schools storm back
erhaps the most moving testament to what New Orleans’ private schools mean to the community occurred on Nov. 19 at St. Louis Cathedral. Forty-five of 89 seniors from St. Mary’s Academy in eastern New Orleans attended their long-postponed ring Mass, some coming in from Florida, Texas and Ohio. Even though St. Mary’s will not reopen for the remainder of the 2005-06 school year due to $4.5 million in damages sustained from Hurricane Katrina, and its status for 2006-07 remains uncertain, more than half its senior class showed up to receive their rings and spend time together. According to Sr. Greta Jupiter, president of St. Mary’s, the ceremony emphasized that “St. Mary’s is not its buildings. The students are St. Mary’s Academy.”
Aside from the close social ties schools bring, many of New Orleans’ private schools have deep roots within their respective neighborhoods and communities. “New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods,” says the Rev. William Maestri, superintendent of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Catholic Schools. When many people think of Mid-City, they think of Jesuit High School, and when they think of the 7th Ward, they think of St. Augustine. “We need to do what we can to bring our families and neighborhoods back, and schools are a huge part of that process,” Maestri says.
Just as Katrina was fickle in its treatment of homes and neighborhoods, so it was in its treatment of the areas’ private schools. The Louise S. McGehee School in the Garden District suffered only minor damage and reopened on Oct. 24. Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie and Stuart Hall in Uptown New Orleans sustained flood damage but were able to open Oct. 3 and Nov. 7 respectively with faculties largely intact. The Academy of the Sacred Heart, also Uptown, suffered a few ceiling collapses on its main campus but reopened on Nov. 7, two months ahead of the original projected date. For Jesuit, St. Mary’s, St. Augustine and Mount Carmel, the damage could only be described as catastrophic and heartbreaking.
After the storm, some schools created satellite campuses in other cities. Jesuit High School opened a school for its displaced students in the Houston area on the campus of Strake Jesuit school. For students of Metairie Park Country Day School, which suffered $4 million in flood damage, its upper-school students in the Houston area attended a satellite school at Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas, along with students from Isidore Newman School. Both schools were staffed by teachers from the displaced students’ schools, which allowed the students to be taught by familiar faces. Dr. David Drinkwater, head of school at Country Day, says one of his biggest priorities was “putting children in touch with faculty they knew well.” For Drinkwater, this extended beyond the satellite school. In Dallas and Baton Rouge, Country Day established offices to meet with concerned parents and students about issues such as the school’s return (it reopened Nov. 7), when the families should return and what their best options were for educating their children in the interim.
For the lesser damaged schools, administrators immediately planned for how and when to reopen. These schools eagerly awaited the opportunity to open their doors again to facilitate New Orleans’ renewal. Erin Beech, development director at Stuart Hall, says, “Our philosophy was, if the schools open, people will come back to New Orleans.” These schools also examined ways in which they could assist New Orleanians who returned, but who had no place to send their children to school. McGehee, one of the city’s oldest schools for young women, allowed the sons of its faculty to take classes there in the fall.
To help displaced students, Rummel opened a transitional school. Rummel students attended class from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and students from schools such as Brother Martin, Mount Carmel and Christian Brothers Middle School attended classes from 1:30 to 6:15 p.m. Mike Begg, president of Rummel, states, “We wanted to make sure we didn’t just have classes … we wanted to provide a full experience,” which includes extracurriculars for the transition students. With students from so many schools enrolling, Rummel devised a single handbook for the transition students that tried to honor the missions of each of the represented schools. As for the Rummel students, of whom only 80 of 1,300 did not return, Begg says, “Their parents love the 12:30 dismissal.” Because of the tenuous job market in the area, many Rummel students need to work to help provide for their families, and the early dismissal allows for that.
Another important transitional school will open Jan. 3 on the campus of Xavier Prep. Students from St. Augustine and St. Mary’s will merge with students from Xavier Prep to form the MAX school (MAX stands for Mary/Augustine/Xavier). Unlike Rummel, which operates under the platoon system, the students enrolling in MAX will attend classes together. The merger occurred in an effort to preserve the traditions of New Orleans’ three most noteworthy black schools. “In the African-American community, everyone has at least one relative who has gone to at least one of these three schools,” says Carolyn Oubre, principal of Xavier Prep. Like Rummel’s transitional school, MAX will operate under a unified handbook.
While Xavier Prep’s Uptown campus is intact, its MAX counterparts suffered severe damage. St. Augustine’s campus suffered flooding damage on the first floor of its buildings. In addition, the school housed more than 300 area residents who sought shelter from the deluge. Parts of the second floor and the gymnasium were vandalized by what the Rev. John Raphael, director of the St. Augustine Recovery Office, stresses was “a very small group” of people who fled the rising waters. St. Augustine plans to reopen its campus on A.P. Tureaud Ave. in fall 2006. Considering the devastated neighborhoods St. Augustine drew the majority of its students from, Raphael says, “Our primary concern is what’s going to happen to New Orleans East and the 9th Ward.”
On Nov. 28, Jesuit reopened its doors to 500 students, with that number expected to rise to 1,275 in January. During Katrina, 6 feet of water wrecked the first floor of Jesuit’s buildings. Pierre DeGruy, director of development and public relations, says, “We’re proud to say we’re the first school that got completely inundated that reopened in New Orleans.” Jesuit’s neighborhood was so decimated by the storm that at the time of its reopening, the only other businesses operating in that area were a gas station and Rock’N Bowl.
Mount Carmel Academy in Lakeview sustained horrific flood damage, taking 10 feet of water in all of its classroom buildings, plus 2 feet of what Vice President Beth Ann Simno describes as a “horrible, black, oily sludge.” However, Mount Carmel plans to welcome 800 students back to Lakeview on Jan. 17, with all but two buildings reopening and classes being held even on the first floor of the damaged buildings. Just as Jesuit hopes to be an anchor for Mid-City, so does Mount Carmel for its part of Lakeview, a previously vibrant area within walking distance of the 17th Street Canal. Simno states, “We are just thrilled to be one of the leaders in going back to Lakeview.”
For all the schools, even the ones who expect most of their students back in January, finances are an issue. Almost all the private schools mentioned in this article suffered costly flood and/or wind damage. Every school shares the sentiment of Country Day’s Drinkwater, who calls the situation a “real financial challenge” that will have to be met by federal grants and/or donations from alumni and other benefactors, even those from out of state. Raphael of St. Augustine says that a New York Times article on St. Augustine’s nationally renowned band helped the school receive donations from sources around the country.
Above all else, the private schools believe in the importance of their work in the resurrection of New Orleans. McGehee has incorporated Katrina-related issues into its curriculum, giving its students a chance to study how levees are built and how state and federal governments interact, as well as giving its high-school students a tour of the city’s most devastated areas. Eileen Powers, headmistress of McGehee, says, “It’s very important they understand what needs to be done in the future because these girls are the future of New Orleans.”