Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Stop closing and merging urban schools

26th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

What rationale and guiding principles are being used by the Recovery School District (RSD) to justify relocating Walter L. Cohen Senior High School students to a school to be built on the BTW site at 1201 So. Roman Street?

The decision by the RSD to merge these two schools into one high school facility is not educationally or financially sound. Nor is it environmentally safe. Such a merger is not in the best interest of the students, parents, community at-large and stakeholders who represent the constituencies of these two schools.

In Karen I. Salessi’s thesis entitled “THE STRUGGLES TO ESTABLISH BOOKER T. WASHINGTON HIGH SCH­OOL AS THE SECOND BLACK PUBLIC HIGH SCH­OOL IN NEW ORLEANS” (University of New Orleans — August 1999), there are a number of painfully obvious similarities in those struggles to the struggles of the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association (WLCAA)

It is disturbing that the educational decisions of the 1930s and 1940s are similar to the decisions made by RSD officials in 2012–2013 regarding the location and building of public schools for poor and minority children.

In her thesis, Salessi states “Another motive of the all-white Board was to isolate the Black population as much as was possible in a city with the demographics of New Orleans in the 1940s. Building a school in the area of the Black housing projects would keep the Black students from leaving the neighborhood and traveling through mostly white areas of the city to be educated.” (pg. 28)

Consequently, in April 1940, in total disregard for the well-being of its occupants, BTW was built on a former city dump — Silver City Dump.

According to the Limited Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Report by Leaaf Environmental, LLC, dated May 31, 2012, the soil at the BTW site is presently contaminated with unacceptable concentrations of antimony, arsenic,barium, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc and mercury. Studies show that lead is devastating to the human body. Current research indicates that no amount of lead is safe for a child.

If we do not remember our past mistakes – building a school on contaminated soil (Robert Moton Elementary School), we are bound to repeat the same mistakes (BTW site).

In addition, the report cited above states the following:

1. The concentration of metals will need to be managed before the site can be used for a school.

2. Management options could include risk management (i.e. no excavation or capping required) but is unlikely to be possible because of the presence of lead which is difficult to manage under risk.

3. The management options open appear to be either excavation or capping of contaminated soils.

4. Because antimony is leachable it is likely that LDEQ will require a groundwater investigation at this site.

School size is no longer the compelling issue relative to our fierce opposition to relocating Cohen students to the BTW site. School location, site contamination and the health of students and educators are now the primary concerns of the WLCAA.

With this letter, we want to highlight and raise awareness in the City of New Orleans about the plans of the RSD to build a school on contaminated soil and merge two historically Black high schools with total disregard for the dire consequences. Anot­her purpose is to encourage the RSD to thoroughly review this matter, its gravity and reconsider and change the plans for the two schools.

The WLCAA urges the parents of New Orleans College Prep (NOCP), alumni of Booker T. Washington Senior High School, political leaders, concerned citizens, civic public policy and business organization to support this effort and stop these plans of the RSD.

Every child who lives in this city deserves the right to receive a quality education on a campus that is environmentally safe and allows him or her to reach their full academic potential.

If a new high school is to be built by the RSD, we firmly believe that it should be built on the present site of Walter L. Cohen Senior High School.

– James H. Raby

This article originally published in the August 26, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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