By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

By January, Priestly School of Architecture and Construction seniors Tamara Handy and Jason Lang will have attended classes at three campuses in four years, moving with the peripatetic New Orleans charter high school.

“The other school we were at was on Gen. Pershing Street,” Jason said. “I liked that school a lot because it’s where I started out. When we moved here, it was new to us.”

In the past two-and-a-half years, the students have grown accustomed to Priestly’s current building at 2009 Palmyra St., though they say it’s limiting because of its size.

Priestly students work on test prep material this week.

“We came to this school our 10th-grade year, and [Priestly] added on another grade each year that we moved,” Tamara said. “And it was different because we had so many students who wanted to come to Priestly and we didn’t have as many classrooms for the teachers, so we had to start combining them.”

They’re not sure if space will be a problem come January or not – because neither they nor the faculty know where the school will be housed in less than three months. The current site is within the footprint of the new Louisiana State University hospital that will replace Charity Hospital, and they school is being forced to move.

Adding to the school’s troubles, the principal suspects that the schools “academically unacceptable” label –  which it has worn since its first year in 2006 –  has driven away students. That means that the money that follows each student has dwindled, forcing the school to lay off teachers.

None of this worries Jason and Tamara, who have attended the school since 2007.

“I believe in the concept of adapt and conquer,” Jason said. “We’ve done this for the past four years, and we’ve stayed on track.”

“No matter where we were or what school we had or did not have, we still stayed focused on what we needed to do,” Tamara said.

Priestly’s various moves over the past four years were spurred largely by a lack of money, School Board administrators said. Priestly is one of the few schools in Orleans Parish that is a Type 1 charter, which makes it responsible for leasing and maintaining a school building.

“A Type 1 charter is not provided a building,” said Lourdes Moran, vice president of the Orleans Parish School Board, which granted Priestly its charter. “They enter into the agreement with OPSB, meaning that they have identified a building that they intend to contract out, lease out or purchase on their own, not relying on the district.”

Bev Nicholls, treasurer of Priestly’s governing board and one of the school’s founders, said the board started the school because of the desires of the Carrollton United Neighborhood Organization, which operated in the Uptown neighborhood where the original Priestly JuniorHigh School building stood. The organization wanted to start a new school in this building, at1619 Leonidas St., that had an architecture and construction focus. The building was closed 12 years prior to Hurricane Katrina.

“The intent was that the building would be renovated and the new school would ultimately go in that building,” Nicholls said.

But because the original Priestly building received no flood damage, Nicholls said, FEMA wouldn’t pay for its renovation.  That left the new charter board with  a mothballed school that came with a $7 million price tag for repairs.

That was about  $7 million short of what the founders had. Nevertheless, they continued to “push and push,” Nicholls said, to get Priestly at the forefront of the School Board’s agenda. In the past four years, the board leased three different buildings to Priestly – the first one was the former McNair building on Carrollton Avenue that the KIPP Believe School now operates; the second was the parochial St. Henry School on Gen. Pershing, and now the former McDonogh  No. 11 building on Palmyra. Priestly has been kicked out of buildings when another school agreed to operate it, or when the building owners OPSB was leasing from closed it down.

Priestly has known for  a year that the next  move was coming, but the actual exit date wasn’t made known to them until recently, Principal Michelle Biagas said.

“We were originally supposed to be out of this building in the summertime,” Biagas said. “But the LSU folks gave us an extension because they weren’t ready yet, and they saw the need, in addition to the fact that OPSB, although they tried, could not find for us an additional place to go to in that small frame of time.

“Last week, we got word that we were supposed to be out of this building by Jan. 1, from officials”  at the Orleans Parish School Board.

Biagas said that they may get another extension if plans for the hospital get further delayed, and in the interim, the School Board is working to  get Priestly modular buildings. Moran said the School Board is doing what it can to help.

“Our mission is children. It’s not about the charter operator,” Moran said. She added that the School Board has other schools that want to expand but don’t have buildings, including Lake Forest Charter Elementary School and Robert R. Moton Elementary School.

But Moran then said that if Priestly continues struggling to find money for a new place, then its leaders will have to “seriously consider giving up their charter.”

“That’s the bottom line. And we will place the children” in other schools, she said. “And they can come back and re-constitutionalize a new charter and try and start again. But that’s the reality.”

The school had to lay off seven teachers this year when enrollment lagged, according to information presented at a Priestly school board meeting last week.  Priestly planned for 400 students, but because of “school choice,” Bigas said, Priestly enrolled only 271. So teachers were  let go.

“In addition to that, we have had issues finding consistent donors,” she said.

In the school board meeting, Biagas said that the fact that the Orleans Parish School Board is required by law to inform parents that their school is academically unacceptable caused a lot of students to leave Priestly to go to better performing schools.

This failing label, Biagas said, comes because of what she believes are external factors that inhibit the school’s growth, such as an adequate building.

“When any of us went to school, we had a facility that was large enough to accommodate us,” she said. “We had a cafeteria space where we could go and eat for our 30 minute lunch period, and not have to worry about eating in the stairwell and eating upstairs in the office, or anything like that. We had a facility that had a gym where we could do our physical education and health courses.”

“We could have our volleyball games and basketball games and a place to cheer for our team at the home site,” she said. “And [Priestly] does not have those things.”

But the biggest thing that inhibits scores, she said, is the lack of stability for the kids. Even still, she notes, Priestly’s scores have improved. According to state performance score data from 2010, 56.2 percent of Priestly’s students have passing LEAP test grades, a 5.2 percentage point jump from its 2008-2009 figure. Priestly’s status as an open-enrollment school should also be taken into consideration, she said.

“If you look at our scores in relation to the kind of children that we teach – if you look at our scores in relation to the RSD high schools –  that would be a fairer comparison, rather than looking at our scores compared to the Orleans Parish high schools,” she said. “We take all children.”

Despite the challenges and uncertain  fate, Jason and Tamara are hopeful about their own futures.

“I actually plan on going to Loyola University to major in pre-law,” Tamara said. She also wants to play volleyball.

Jason is still researching his options, but he knows his main goal is to attend college. Though their college choices may not yet be defined,  they say they feel well prepared to attend any college based on the education they’ve received at Priestly, especially an architecture or design school.

Though Priestly has had challenges, Biagas said that the main lesson to be learned by both Priestly’s teachers and students is this:

“You can progress, no matter what. No matter what your circumstance is, no matter what your trials are and your tribulations are, if you have the tenacity to succeed, you will succeed,” she said. “It does not matter what we don’t have. We have each other, and we can move.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...