protest at landry Credit: WVUE-TV

For months, officials have described the planned merger between West Bank rivals O. Perry Walker and L.B. Landry high schools as a “unification.”

The new school could have an ecumenical new name: “Landry Walker High School,” planners said. Graduating seniors from the class of 2014 could choose Landry rings or Walker rings. And together students from both schools would choose their new mascot and their new colors.

“One team, one band,” read one slide in a PowerPoint presentation shared with parents, teachers and students from both communities last week.

But according to Recovery School District superintendent Patrick Dobard, the combination of the two schools at Landry’s new $59 million, state-of-the-art facility essentially dissolves Landry, an F-rated school with dwindling enrollment and a 74-year-old history, while keeping Walker’s preferable academic standing as a B school intact.

“This is not a merger,” said Lourdes Moran, an outgoing Orleans Parish School Board member who represents most of Algiers. “RSD is shutting down a low-performing school.”

On Thursday, about a dozen Algiers students and Landry supporters protested outside RSD’s Poydras Street office, the latest in the ongoing outcry from both school communities opposing the merger.

“These people have totally disrespected a community, a community that wants to be involved with what’s going on with the school,” said Derek LaMothe, who heads the Friends of Landry group protesting the move.

Walker supporters, meanwhile, wondered if they could save their school by leaving RSD control.

The school’s improved academic standing makes it eligible to return to the Orleans Parish School Board.

With the Algiers Charter Schools Association poised to vote in January on whether Walker and two other schools should return to the Orleans Parish School Board, Walker supporters couldn’t help but wonder if such a move would protect them from the merger.

State schools Superintendent John White weighed in with a resounding no.

In a Dec. 10 letter to Dobard and Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Stan Smith, White warned that he will recommend the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education reject the transfer of any school planning to go against the state-approved facilities master plan — a plan that calls for just one high school in the Algiers area.

“In order to sustain our progress on fiscal and operational responsibility, I strongly urge that enrollment and facilities decisions regarding schools that opt to return from the RSD to the OPSB remain in place as part of their plans to return,” White wrote.

White said he would recommend the state Board of of Elementary and Secondary Education only approve plans for return that “preserve previously made enrollment and facilities determinations” for their schools.

Dobard said if the Algiers Charter Schools Association votes to transfer Walker from the Recovery School District to Orleans Parish, Orleans officials would be inheriting a combined student population from Walker and Landry, as well as Landry’s multi-million-dollar facility.

Landry’s program, meanwhile, would be dissolved along with its dismal performance scores, he said.

Orleans Parish Schools Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Padian has vocally supported returning eligible schools to the Orleans Parish district.

But Padian, who oversees the district’s charters, said the Orleans Parish administration is still not clear on what would happen if the district took back oversight of Walker amid its plans to merge with Landry.

“We’re not party to the discussions regarding Walker and L.B. Landry. Those talks have been between RSD and the Algiers Charter Schools Association,” Padian said. “State laws says the Walker program and the Walker building are eligible to return to the Orleans Parish School Board. It doesn’t say anything about co-locating with other schools or merging programs.”

Walker teacher Robert Corvo, who heads a school leadership team, said the faculty voted unanimously in favor of Walker moving back to the Orleans Parish school district — even before teachers heard that the move to Orleans Parish could possibly block the merger.

Walker staff members have since learned of White’s letter, Corvo said, and are not deterred.

“First and foremost,” Corvo said, “we’ve earned the right to return to Orleans Parish schools. Second, we’ve received neither accolades nor assistance from RSD in the past during times of need. John White’s letter is even more reason to move. RSD changes the game all the time. If we wait another year, who’s to say that the conditions of return will be the same as they are now?”

Walker’s current enrollment is 903 and has been steadily climbing for the past few years, while the student population of 466 at Landry has been in decline since the school re-opened in August 2010 for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

LaMothe, a former coach and faculty member at both Landry and Walker, attributes Landry’s decrease in enrollment to the Recovery School District turning down students who have tried to enroll since the merger was announced last year.

“I’m not opposed to kids needing a place to go to school,” LaMothe said. “I have a problem with someone coming in and telling kids they have to change their identity.”

Algiers Charter Schools Association interim CEO Adrian Morgan disclosed during a recent public forum that the old Walker building will be used by the state to provide space for temporary programs or other state-run offices.

As for the spacious, modern building that will house the new school, both Moran and the Landry community have opined that such a large facility, equipped for 1,300 students, is not in line with the West Bank’s needs.

“The facility is large. It would have been great if the money could have been spent on two smaller schools,” Moran said. “There is no need for schools that large in the city. We lost 20,000 students. It’s bouncing back some, but not enough to warrant facilities that large.”

Leslie Ellison, a Walker graduate who voters elected in November to replace Moran, has attended meetings about combining Walker and Landry. But she told The Lens she didn’t want to talk about the issue until she takes office in January.

Landry’s school website boasts of the school’s amenities — media and vocational technical centers, science labs, an industrial style kitchen, an on-site health clinic and two gymnasiums.

“The auditorium/performing arts theater is so impressive that, almost to the person, it produces a ‘WOW’ factor,” the site reads.

“It looks like a big mall,” LaMothe said. “There’s nothing but airspace. There aren’t very many classrooms. They chose to build that, and now they’re pushing Walker over to Landry.”

Heather Miller

Heather Miller is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Lens' Charter School Reporting Corps. She is a former staff writer for The Independent in Lafayette, and is now based in New Orleans.