Alums, activists ask why high school is left in squalor with millions earmarked for it set aside
26th August 2013 · 0 Comments
By Kari Harden
For the past four years Angelina Elder has been furiously waging a battle for her alma mater, John McDonogh High School, from within the lime green kitchen walls in her 7th Ward home.
There has been progress, but most of the time Elder (class of ’84) feels frustrated at the lack of concern and urgency to get students out of a building she said she has the evidence to prove is unsafe and hazardous to the health of the children.
She started taking photographs in 2009. “I cried I was so heartbroken,” Elder said, of what she saw inside the school. “It should have been up to par when the children got in there.”
Elder’s daughter graduated in the spring, and her son in 2002, but Elder says she will continue to fight, armed with a kitchen table covered in copied documents, inspection reports, and printed-out emails, for the kids still there.
At the computer in her den, Elder while she sorts through no less than 1,000 photos of the building located at 2426 Esplanade Avenue.
From 2008-2012, John McDonogh was run directly by the Recovery School District (RSD). Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, it was taken over by the California-based Future is Now Schools (FINS) charter management organization but still is under the auspices of the RSD.
The RSD has close to $35 million in federal dollars earmarked for John McDonogh, but renovations are not planned until 2016.
The countless rows of images on Elder’s computer show exposed asbestos in the band room, extensive termite damage, vents covered in thick layers of dust, peeling paint (including paint in the culinary arts room she said a maintenance worker confirmed as lead), rotting wood, insulation hanging down, black mold, mushrooms growing out of the floor and feathery white mold on the ceiling of the boy’s locker room.
“They know it’s bad – And I’m going to fight with everything I’ve got,” Elder said.
One image shows a chest freezer, with dark mold growing in a patch on top, which she said sat in the school’s rusty green gymnasium through Hurricane Katrina and was untouched until it was removed in 2011.
She said she’s seen rat droppings in the cafeteria, and wiring so bad in the gym that the electrical fixtures spark when the kids plug in the fans.
One of Elder’s most disturbing photos was taken in September of 2010 and shows thick black mold covering the hidden side of a piece of ceiling cut out of the basement, which is used by the 9th-graders.
On the outside of the building, the red brick walls are stained with dripping rust and graffiti. Plants grow through cracks in the bricks, and most of the windows are missing, broken and sealed in plastic or plywood.
Elder is concerned about lack of fresh air, as the windows have been boarded up and sealed over and cannot be opened. One of the biggest complaints she hears from students is that they are not allowed outside during the entire school day, other than to change classes.
“It’s in bad condition – it really is,” said Clarence Robinson, class of 1977 and chairman of the John McDonogh Advisory Committee. Robinson also serves on the executive board of the Future is Now: New Orleans.
When FINS and its founder and director, Steve Barr, were given the school in early 2012, “Coach” Frank Buckley (class of ’82) said that he was a part of a group of alumni and community leaders trying to charter it themselves after there was talk of shutting it down. Buckley said they were “blind-sided” by one of their own in a backroom deal.
“We should be doing a lot better for the school than we are doing,” Robinson said. Last Wednesday, he said the air conditioning on the third floor wasn’t working.
Robinson, who walks with a cane, said he barely makes it up the front stairs to go to meetings. While there is an elevator, it doesn’t work, creating a hazard and leaving the school inaccessible to students with disabilities.
The most infuriating part for alums Elder, Robinson, and Buckley is that the money designated specifically for the well-being of the John McDonogh community, — $34.2 million of it—is sitting in the bank while the kids continue spend their days locked inside the disintegrating and potentially poisonous building.
According to Executive Director of Communications for the Recovery School District Zoey Reed: “Renovation work on the John McDonogh building is planned to start in 2016 and $34.2 million dollars are budgeted at this time. However, these are only estimates. Actual dates and figures will depend on the current costs of construction when the project begins.”
Reed denied multiple requests for a phone interview.
Asked why wait until 2016, Reed wrote: “Anytime schools are up for renovations, students have to move so the work can be done. A temporary location for the students will not be available until 2016. The reason is that there is nearly 30 projects scheduled for start or completion by 2016, so swing space becomes available as other school projects are completed on the list.”
But Elder said she was told by RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard’s assistant that FINS was given an offer to move the kids into trailers on the nearby Bell School campus, but that the school declined. When Elder asked Principal Marvin Thompson at the August board meeting why he didn’t accept the offer, she said he put his head down and didn’t answer.
Until she was all but banned from the building in the spring of 2013, Elder continued her regular inspections, and said the only evidence she saw of addressing the problems was by covering the trouble spots with layers and layers of paint, plywood, and cheap plastic flooring.
“When I step in the building they get scared,” she said.
She has stacks of inspection reports from the Department of Health and Hospitals Office of Public Health (from 2010-2013) that list observations including mold, rodent droppings and ants, holes in the walls, low water pressure, exposed electrical wires and leaking ceilings. Over and over the reports state observations of ceilings, walls, and floor in “disrepair.”
The health of the children has not been a priority for the RSD, said education activist Ashana Bigard – just like the lack of adequate mental health care available for children who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following Hurricane Katrina, she noted.
McDonogh gained national attention in the spring when it was featured in the documentary “Blackboard Wars,” which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
In an open letter to Barr, Winfrey, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu in March, Robinson’s advisory committee called the show “a source of negative, exploitative depictions of the students and the school.”
At a January board meeting, Barr said that the school will receive a per-episode sum of money, but he could not confirm the amount. He said the money would go directly to students’ needs and programs that they cannot currently afford.
Robinson said he has never seen any of that money or reports of the school receiving that money.
Barr was not in attendance at Tuesday’s board meeting and did not respond to two requests for interview for this story.
While Robinson said he hears that Winfrey herself is generous, “If you are trying to exploit the kids for ratings, why not do anything for the children?”
With all of her documentation, Elder has reached out to FINS, the RSD, the Orleans Parish School Board, the City Council, the governor’s office, her local representatives, BESE, the DHH, the EPA, and the CDC, among others. Next she’s going to try the preservationists.
“I will keep pressure on them,” she said. “I will keeping calling more people.”
Elder has long been requesting a meeting or even phone conversation with RSD Superintendent Dobard. She said she recently called the central office every day for two weeks, but has yet to hear back from him.
“They leave me no other choice than to expose them,” she said. “It’s hurting me to my heart to see children breathing and going into these kinds of conditions.”
When it comes to facilities maintenance in the convoluted New Orleans education landscape, there is often a circular finger pointing between the OPSB, the RSD, and the charter operators.
“They bounce the responsibility back and forth and nothing ever happens,” Bigard said. “The truth is they are all responsible – they are all to blame.”
And they already have the money – a lot of it– to be used only for John Mac.
Asked what has been done and is being done over the past three years in terms of mold, pest control, asbestos, lead paint, and termite infestation, Reed wrote: “RSD is not aware of any lead paint concerns; the charter management organization is responsible for having an asbestos and lead paint management plan. During the renovation, if lead paint is found, it will be abated according to the Louisiana DEQ guidelines. Charter operator is responsible per their lease to maintain termite and pest control services.”
Reed did not address the mold.
Bigard said that while holding their students to a “no excuses” disciplinary model and always telling them to take responsibility for their actions, the adults charged with their safety “do the exact things they tell the children not to do.”
“Everyone ought to be holding the RSD accountable,” Robinson said.
As the historic structure crumbles on the outside and rots from the inside, one thing the school does have going for it is a devoted and determined community and group of alumni.
Elder is most certainly not giving up. “If y’all won’t move out I’m going to run you out,” she said.
This article originally published in the August 26, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.