Over a hundred people attended a Recovery School District meeting Dec. 15 at L.B. Landry High School to discuss a planned merger with O. Perry Walker High School.
Chris Meyer, an RSD department supervisor, gave a presentation on how and why the schools will be combined. The presentation was greeted with shouts and jeers from the crowd, followed by a series of racially charged statements from the community.
Darryl Brown, the head of the Leadership Institute of New Orleans was the first to address the RSD. “We say, no, Mr. Meyers. We say no. We have seen your track records, and we say no.”
Currently, L.B. Landry is run directly by the RSD, while the higher performing O. Perry Walker is run by the Algiers Charter School Board, which also answers to the RSD. The decision to combine came this year, when the state projected a Westbank student population of 2,500 in 2016, about half the current capacity of Westbank high schools.
“We understand this may not be popular, and we are struggling with how to combine legacies,” Meyer said.
Current O. Perry Walker principal Mary Laurie has been tapped to lead the new school, although staff from both high schools will have the opportunity to apply. A student-led organization will vote on a mascot, school colors, and a motto. Meyers said the new school will open in 2013, enrolling grades nine through 12.
Louisiana state Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis accused the RSD of not listening to the community’s concerns before making the decision to merge.
“This could have been done in a very friendly, engaging way. The community has seen for the first time decisions instead of conversations. We need a real process —public notice, minutes, and engagement,” Willard-Lewis said.
The RSD has met with community leaders twice in the past, and at both meetings were faced with staunch opposition to the merger.
“You didn’t listen when we said no. You didn’t listen when we said no Teach for America. We have teachers here. You’re not listening to us now. You hear us, but you’re not listening,” Frank Joshua, a graduate of the class of 1980 said.
RSD President John White stood his ground on the merger decision.
“It does not bring me or my team any joy to make decisions about resources such as buildings that require dollars,” White said.
Alumni from Landry’s 73 graduating classes rose to speak about the school’s legacy, sharing memories of hand-me-down books, favorite coaches, and a library fire in the 1950’s.
“I cried,” said one alumnus who was a sophomore when the fire burned the newly-build library addition. “I cried and cried, and you cried too, sister. Remember? And I cry now.”
Another alumnus led the crowd in singing the school’s fight song, “Hold the line, Landry/That’s what we’re gonna do.” People spoke fondly of the school’s mascot, the Buccaneer.
Many in the crowd felt the school hadn’t been given sufficient time to prove itself, and that its new campus, built with $54 million in federal disaster funds from FEMA, was being awarded unjustly to O. Perry Walker, a school with higher grades and school performance scores.
“You don’t walk through our classes, you don’t see how we’re doing. You can’t give us a grade. I refuse to walk across any other stage [when I graduate],” L.B. Landry sophomore Tierra Bonnes said.
Members of the community applied for a charter to govern L.B. Landry this year, but were turned down by state officials who faulted the application for its lack of detail in structural planning and for a financial strategy heavily dependent on credit. But many present Thursday night claimed that race was an underlying factor in the charter being denied.
“This battle is not over the name of this school. We have to force them to build community schools. We have to demand it. Black groups are being denied the right to run this charter,” Brown said in an interview. “John White will guarantee work for Teach for America, New York, or Turkey, but no one from New Orleans.”
Lord Beaconsfield Landry, the school’s namesake, was an African-American doctor who served the Algiers community. O. Perry Walker was a segregationist who served on the Orleans Parish School Board for decades, a legacy cited by several speakers opposed to the merger.
Foes of the merger said they plan to meet regularly. If they fail, several said they will remove their children from the merged schools.
As one alumni said, “Right now we’re trying to do this professionally. After that it’s going to be what it’s going to be.”