BESE hears from merger opponents

Advocate staff photo by Kari Dequine Harden -- Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members, from left, Kira Orange Jones, Carolyn Hill and Lottie Beebe spent Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting in New Orleans listening to the Algiers community's concerns about the proposed merger of L.B. Landry High School and O. Perry Walker College and Preparatory High School. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by Kari Dequine Harden -- Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members, from left, Kira Orange Jones, Carolyn Hill and Lottie Beebe spent Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting in New Orleans listening to the Algiers community's concerns about the proposed merger of L.B. Landry High School and O. Perry Walker College and Preparatory High School.

About 300 Algiers residents took the opportunity to tell members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday night that they don’t believe things are all rosy under the Recovery School District.

BESE member Lottie Beebe told the crowd that she returned home with a heavy heart after hearing from New Orleans residents in recent months, because based on the meetings in Baton Rouge, “Everything is projected to be wonderful here in the RSD.”

BESE member Carolyn Hill said that she found the Feb. 27 meeting heartbreaking, when she heard for the first time about concerns from people who have been fighting the unification of L.B. Landry High School and O. Perry Walker College and Preparatory High School.

The Schools Facilities Master Plan calls for two high schools on the west bank to match changing demographics. Currently there are three.

Hill and Beebe, later joined by Kira Orange Jones, whose BESE district includes New Orleans, said that their views did not represent the board, but that they felt it was important to come to the city to listen.

“I want to hear from you,” Hill said. “This is your community — you know what’s best for Algiers.”

Beebe stressed that they weren’t promising answers or solutions, but that they would return to Baton Rouge and share the community’s concerns.

Orleans Parish School Board members Leslie Ellison and Nolan Marshall joined the BESE members at the table.

“We do not want this merger to take place,” Ellison said. “We want the schools to stay Walker and Landry in separate locations. We are hoping and praying this meeting will be a stopping point.”

The issues over the merger essentially remain the same, but after more than a year of meetings, Derek “Coach Skip” LaMothe said he did not feel the community’s voice was being taken into consideration — particularly when trying to communicate with the RSD and the Algiers Charter School Association, the governing board that oversees Walker and will run the new unified school.

There were not any representatives from the RSD at Wednesday’s meeting. One Algiers Charter School Association board member, D’Juan Hernandez, attended.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said he did not attend the meeting because he did not get an official invitation.

Algiers Charter School Association CEO Adrian Morgan said in an email that he did not attend because “ACSA’s sole focus is on its responsibility for creating a successful unification for Landry students and Walker students, which means ensuring that the school is ready for teaching and learning on opening day in August. It is our understanding that last night’s meeting had a different purpose.”

Orange Jones said that she was told that it was only a small group of people fighting the merger, but the crowd that filled the room showed that wasn’t true.

The latest New Orleans Guide to Public Schools doesn’t include Landry; it lists Walker at Landry’s address.

The proposed plan is for the Walker administration to move into the Landry building under the name “Landry-Walker.”

A number of older members of the community spoke about the history of Landry, from being the first school opened in 1938 on the West Bank for African Americans to the legacy of Lord Beaconsfield Landry, a prominent Algiers physician and civic leader who donated the land on which the school sits.

The talked about their fierce pride, despite getting fewer resources and hand-me-down books from nearby Martin Behrman. Following Hurricane Katrina, they talked about how Landry kids went to Walker and didn’t expect to be anything other than Walker students. They also described the fight by the Friends of Landry alumni group that fought — and succeeded — in getting the new Landry facilities built.

Kenneth Grooms talked about Landry not being given a chance to succeed on its own, given a failing grade when according to the state’s own rules it should not even have been given a School Performance Score for last year, and the school’s instability with four principals in two years.

Terrance Davis, a Walker employee, stood in front of the board members with a group of Walker students. “We believe O. Perry Walker has earned the right to exist independently and L.B. Landry has earned the right to exist independently.”

Davis cited failing schools across the river that received the money needed to fix their buildings. “We didn’t ask for the Landry building. We asked for money so we can fix 2832 General Meyer Avenue.”

As at other meetings, the overall sentiment was the same: In an ideal world, Walker gets the resources it needs to remain at their campus. If not, Landry stays L.B. Landry, and any and all new students are welcome to attend.

With the rare chance to address BESE members in New Orleans, other parents and education activists took the opportunity to share concerns about other schools, such as the students of John McDonogh being featured on a reality television show, and the closing of Benjamin Mays Prep without the chance to have a charter operator take over and not displace the kids — as happened with the other schools who lost their contracts.

“I believe in education reform,” Hill said after hearing from more than 20 upset community members. “This is not reform. They are manipulating the system on the backs of children.”

Orange Jones said that the board was not going to agree on everything, but that “this must be resolved.”

Dobard pointed to “a lot of good things that are happening with the merger.” He described activities underway that are combining students from both schools, including the basketball, football and dance teams and choir, drama and dance programs. He said a marching band mixer was held Thursday night.

Asked why the name could not remain L.B. Landry, Morgan said in an email that, “After several community engagement meetings, held by ACSA, on the schools unification, ACSA committed to preserving the legacy of Lord Beaconsfield Landry and celebrating the great work that has been done at O. Perry Walker under its current administration. The “Landry-Walker” name achieves this objective.”

Dobard said that he understands the fierce devotion of the Landry community to keeping the name. He said that may be something the ACSA will still consider. Dobard said he will support keeping the name and will support the proposed “Landry Walker” name.

Dobard said that he hopes to see the history preserved while also creating a new legacy.

“I can’t guarantee they won’t merge,” Hill said, “but I can guarantee I will be heard and my voice will be loud.”