Work on new Phillis Wheatley Elementary School under way

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Site preparation and preliminary construction are under way at the site of the Phillis Wheatley school in New Orleans Tuesday, November 27, 2012.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Site preparation and preliminary construction are under way at the site of the Phillis Wheatley school in New Orleans Tuesday, November 27, 2012.

NEW ORLEANS — Construction recently began on the site of Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, where the previous building in the Treme-Lafitte neighborhood was torn down in 2011 despite protests from preservationists.

Andreanecia Morris, vice-president for home ownership and community development for Providence Community Housing, has been working closely with the community as well as the Recovery School District and said the neighborhood is eagerly awaiting the new school.

In the first draft of the School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish, Wheatley was slated for the second phase of project construction. Concerned that funding would not be secured, Morris said that in 2008, before the plan was finalized, the community rallied and signed a petition urging that the school be moved to the first phase of projects. The RSD listened, Morris said, and Wheatley was put into phase one.

Morris lamented the process being delayed by about a year because of the study required to determine whether it would be better to demolish and rebuild or renovate. The study, at a cost of $90,000 to the RSD, concluded that demolishing the neglected building was the best option, to the chagrin of protesters who held an 11-hour demonstration.

The original building, designed in 1954 by architect Charles Colbert, was built as a segregated school for African Americans.

One of the biggest issues with the old building for those who wanted to see it demolished, Morris said, was that the building in contention did not have restrooms. A separate building housed the bathrooms, which would not have met the requirement meeting 21st-century needs as outlined in the master plan.

Because the new Faubourg Lafitte housing development is two blocks away from the new school, Morris said, she works closely with any redevelopment that will include social and community services and provide amenities in the neighborhood. A nearby school was always an element in the planning for the housing development, Morris said.

While there has been a strong emphasis on school choice in the past several years, Morris stressed the importance of working for schools that are high performing as well as neighborhood schools.

The Faubourg Lafitte development first opened its apartments to renters last year. Morris said that of the 276 units, 250 are filled, with more than 400 children under the age of 18 and a bulk of those under age 13.

The school will open with grades K-8, and Morris said the estimate for the student body is for between 300 to 400 children.

According to the master plan, for which approximately $2 billion in federal funds were approved, Wheatley is scheduled to be completed in February 2014 and ready for occupancy in June 2014. While the building may be ready early, Morris said she believes it will likely welcome students for the fall of 2014.

On Nov. 8, a community meeting was held for a “meet and greet” with the contractors, Gibbs Construction, to address any concerns with the rebuilding process.

The new building was designed by Holly and Smith Architects.

Morris said she is encouraging continued engagement from the parents and community as the RSD selects a charter operator for the school, a decision she said is “still up in the air.” The RSD could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The name Phillis Wheatley is required by the master plan to be incorporated in some way with the new school’s name to honor the history of the school and the woman who lived as a slave in the 1700s and was the first African poet to publish a book in the United States.

“It’s where the rubber meets the road,” Morris said, in terms of building a neighborhood school that combines proximity with high academic standards.