There's a funny story that Ken Ducote, director, department of facility planning for the New Orleans Public Schools, likes to tell about his district. In a budget-hearing meeting once, someone stands up and says he was shocked to find out how old the schools in the district were and wanted to know how many were built before the war.
"Which war?" asks Ducote. Everyone in the room laughs. Humoring him, some of the parents say "World War II."
"61 schools," says Ducote.
"What would you have said if I had said World War I?" the board president asks.
"17," says Ducote.
"You can stop there because I know you can't go back to the Spanish-American War," another person says.
"7," says Ducote, amid laughing.
"I know you can't go back to the Civil War."
"3," says Ducote.
The story, although everyone got a good laugh out of it, is indicative of the age of the district's schools, whose average date of construction is 1939.
Having older facilities means that construction, renovation and modernization projects are always lurking. When one project is completed, hundreds of others are waiting in the wings.
"When you count repairs and renovations, you've got around 350 projects in the works, but that goes down to the smallest being around $15,000. We've got a few [smaller] code-compliance projects, but just a few of those," says Ducote. "Most of the projects are around $1 million."
Other projects include air conditioning, as the heat in New Orleans can be stifling for several months of the school year. Despite this, and having an extensive summer-school program that includes 100 district schools, not all of the facilities are air conditioned.
"Although a lot of our classrooms have window units, only 40 percent of our schools actually are air conditioned," says Ducote. "They'll all be air conditioned within the next year and a half."
Sparking the community
The pride and joy of the ninth-ward section of the district currently is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for Science and Technology, designed by Hewitt Washington & Associates. The site formerly held The Macarty Elementary School, which was old and crumbling, and finally demolished in 1988. Funding problems delayed construction for several years, and the district had to contend with several factors, including residents who were living in rental and low-income housing on part of the property. The district's solution was to provide relocation assistance.
"We were very sensitive to it because we wanted this whole project to describe something about a public agency conforming to the dreams and needs of the community," says Ducote. "We didn't want to be put in a situation of displacing people and disrupting their lives in a negative sense where they felt like they were losing control of their lives. The school was supposed to help people gain control."
The dream was realized when the school opened in 1995. It currently houses 850 students, with 228 additional students in a rented extension school a few blocks away.
For this low-income area of the city, building a school and community-use facility was the impetus behind the rejuvenation of the area. The city has been doing landscaping in the area, and a community center recently was built across the street. The school serves as a focal point for the community.
"When we went through the visioning process, the community wanted whatever the school was to symbolize Dr. King's dream in the sense of achieving your excellence and moving on toward the future," says Ducote. "They wanted it to symbolize things becoming better and parental hope for the future."
Built onto the school is a community public library, which includes a children's library open to students only during the day, and an adjoining secure adult library and learning center that is open for the community during the day, as well as in the evenings.
"There was no public library in this part of town. All during the day, I'm just amazed that so many persons are here, and then, of course, after school," says Doris Roche-Hicks, principal. "So it has really proven to be something that was sorely needed in this area and they do get a lot of usage out of it."
A deliberate attempt to include parents in the students' learning process, as well as that of the community, can be attributed to the school's success. Parents and residents also take advantage of access to computers and a learning-center area, resources that in this area of the district are unavailable elsewhere.
"This whole building and the program that we're trying to develop here, you know it's like the mission is even more important than it normally would be," says Roche-Hicks. "That community's whole vision has looked to the school to establish bringing kids up for the future and having a better life."
In response to the New Orleans community's outcry for education reform, the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation was formed in March 1998. New Orleans Parish Schools was chosen as its first collaborative effort involving school reform, which began with a comprehensive assessment of the school system.
The assessment process was guided by a 10-point project plan involving quantitative and qualitative studies, classroom/teaching assessments, best-practice research, site-based cost reviews/audits, needs assessments, legal obstacle reviews, and ultimately, a strategic plan. A re-engineering team, was developed to study six major areas of concern, report on findings and make recommendations for change.
The foundation also created a 48-member New Orleans Education Council to shape the community's recommendations for the strategic plan. The council is made up of a variety of community voices, including school board members, parents, students, teachers, community leaders and others. For more information about the strategic plan process, visit the district's website at www.nops.k12.la.us.