A mid-year move for Morris Jeff school is just part of continuing shuffle

A yellow sticky note with the word “Sears” scribbled on it labeled veteran teacher Erin Sears’ new classroom.

Teacher Erin Sears believes good things are just around the corner for her and her students.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Teacher Erin Sears believes good things are just around the corner for her and her students.

“Welcome to my room!” she beamed at the doorway, welcoming her fellow second-grade teachers.

Sears and about 80 other Morris Jeff Community School staff were taking a first look at their new school the week before winter break.

After its move over the holidays, Morris Jeff is continuing to settle into one of 10 either new or completely renovated schools slated to be ready for New Orleans public school students in 2015. More than 10 additional multi-million-dollar school projects are underway that will be completed in 2016 or later. All are part of a $1.8 billion investment of federal money to rebuild the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.

Morris Jeff’s 400 students had an extra week of winter break this year so teachers could pack, move and set up classrooms inside the new building in Mid-City.

Teachers carried in curriculum material alongside construction workers carrying tiny wooden playset stoves destined for kindergarten classrooms.

The staff’s excitement was easy to spot with ear-to-ear grins at every corner and doorway, and exclamations over seemingly minute details, such as “appropriately sized” chairs and having sinks in classrooms.

They set up desks while workers laid sod, poured concrete and put the finishing touches on the long-awaited school.

A new classroom with appropriately sized desks and chairs are just some factors that let students know that their education is valued, Sears said.

Marta Jewson / Lens

A new classroom with appropriately sized desks and chairs are just some factors that let students know that their education is valued, Sears said.

Morris Jeff, which incorporates the International Baccalaureate curriculum, opened during the 2010-11 school year. This is the school’s third move in its five years.

But this time, things are different — it’s a permanent home.

“We just shed our tears upstairs when we were talking about what a wonderful opportunity it is for children in New Orleans, who traditionally have not had very good facilities, to really have an opportunity to work and go to school everyday in such a beautiful place,” Principal Patricia Perkins said, sitting in her yet-to-be-decorated office.

“We have, on our faculty, quite a few veteran teachers who taught in some of those crumbling conditions,” Perkins said. “So they recall very clearly how hard it was, and how unfair it was, for our children to have to go to school in those circumstances.”

In 1995, voters approved a $175 million renovation program for New Orleans’ dilapidated schools. This December voters reauthorized the tax for an additional 10 years, an estimated $15 million each year, to help pay for maintaining facilities.

That money will fund both Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board controlled facilities. Morris Jeff is a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade Recovery School District charter.

Workers put the final touches on the school over the holiday break.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Workers put the final touches on the school over the holiday break.

Workers unveiled the elementary school’s new illuminated lawn sign recently, reading “Morris Jeff Community School.” That’s a different name than the letters affixed to the top of the building spell out — Fisk-Howard School — but that’s not uncommon in New Orleans where young charter schools occupy long-standing buildings. For the past few years, it’s been a school shuffle, where charters move from building to building on their way to a permanent home, should they keep their charter long enough to receive one. And that citywide trading of campuses isn’t likely to stop soon.

In fact, there’s already a charter lined up to take Morris Jeff’s most recent home in an old Catholic elementary school, near Bayou St. John. Sears said the bayou was a great resource for science and other sensory lessons. She spent quite a bit of time there with students.

“I took my class out on Friday and we said bye to the bayou,” Sears said.

One student asked if she would still be his teacher with the same classmates when they returned after break. Of course, she reassured him. And that may be one of the benefits of moving mid-year: Students will have the stability of the same teachers and classmates to introduce them to the campus.

The first week of school in January in the new building was like the first week of the school year. The children had to learn the basics: layout of the building, where the bathrooms are, where they sit in the cafeteria and various other school rules.

The school held an open house Jan. 5 to familiarize parents and students with the new building, and students started classes the next day.

“There are some families that we have who have been dreaming of this for years,” Sears said. “This isn’t just the teachers … it’s the dream of a neighborhood, a community and a city.”

A new school-zone sign on South Rendon Street lists the correct times, changed in 2012, for drivers to slow down. A sign on Palmyra Street has the old times, remnants of a school occupied pre-Katrina.

The original school, and its city block, sat empty for years after the hurricane. First as an old shadowy brick school, whose parking lot served as higher ground respite for neighbors during storms that flooded the surrounding streets. Once the school had been torn down, the grass lot hosted a makeshift football field or dog park, whatever was the pleasure of the people who lived nearby.

Then, neighbors endured months of house-rattling pile-driving, and years of construction noise and muddy streets. Despite the annoyances, neighbors were willing to compromise on the number of parking spaces required — meaning more cars parked on the street — so Morris Jeff could have a larger school yard.

Sears was excited to introduce families to the building. She’s also excited about the little things.

Like having a thermostat she can control. And the boys and girls bathrooms being next to each other. Not only will that be a time saver, she said, but it will help her more easily keep track of students.

For the first lesson back, the class studied outer space.

“This roof is going to be our moonscape and those are like our Mars rovers,” Sears said, looking out at mechanical equipment on the first-story roof visible from her second-story classroom.

Having a beautiful place to learn, Sears said, goes a long way toward showing children that learning is valuable and that our society thinks education is important.

The building itself retained the old Fisk-Howard name, even if the program it houses carries a different title

Marta Jewson / The Lens

The building itself retained the old Fisk-Howard name, even if the program it houses carries a different title

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • nickelndime

    Good story. What charter school is lined up to go into the old Catholic School (and is that what used to be Holy Rosary Academy)? 01/23/2015 12:44 PM

  • MarAli

    It’s so nice see the children in nice mold-free schools and educators like Ms Sears. And I think that she nails it when she says it’s a demonstration to the children (and the staff) that education is important. Thanks for article.

  • nickelndime

    MORRIS JEFF, Forget the F.X. : Sheila Stroup, you are a good girl. Yes you are. But the numbers don’t add up. For example, Patricia Perkins is on the CityBusiness list of highest paid CEOs in charter schools – and that is IRS 2012 990 minimal reporting. We are now two years later – 2014 reporting period. And please, do not make me get into ethnic percentages and at-risk enrollment (which is even more important). So, what do we have here? 1.4 billion dollars in FEMA money (maybe more) and the parents are fundraising to get a sodded playground? What are these sincere parents selling? Rice krispies treats? This nonprofit board (yeah I am talking to you Brian Beabout – UNO) should be hung out to dry. 01/23/2015 10:14 PM

  • nickelndime

    If, in these newly comstructed or newly renovated schools, the parents should want school playgrounds for their children, they must conduct fundraisers. What the parents and the public should be doing is RAISING HELL instead. The RSD formed a “paper only” for-profit corporation to receive federal tax credits on school building construction projects that is FEMA-financed at 1.4 billion (maybe more). It’s three-way collusion – local (city) – state (RSD, BESE, LDOE) – and then there are the Feds. The public schools in this city looks like a caste system. Forty-six CEOS (formerly known as principals) are on the CityBusiness list (2012 – IRS 990 – minimal reporting) of highest paid CEOs in nonprofit charters. Perkins is one of them, and instead, what do the children say? “Thank you, Ms. Patricia.” The money is still flowing into the wrong pockets. 1/25/2015 8:31 PM

  • R.Rubes

    Really nice that they did it in the middle of the year and students stick with the same class and teachers. It is important for students to stop shuffling schools and have stability in their eduction. Looks like Morris Jeff is doing good for their kids.

  • nickelndime

    I agree with R.Rubes in one thing, i.e., the part where students need to stop being shuffled. The reporter (Marta Jewson) has already stated that another charter school will move (cycle of abuse) into the prior site from which the Morris Jeff charter moved, which in this case is Holy Rosary Academy. This is a “shell game” of sorts. Now, I am not saying that the Holy Rosary facility is not up to standards – it is old – and old things are good (sometimes better), but the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the elementary school because of dwindling Catholic enrollment that could not support the cost of upgrading the facility. This left an opening for another type of school that catered to students with learning disabilities, etc. to open (Holy Rosary Academy with a new twist). Now that school is located off of Napoleon Avenue at the closed Our Lady of Lourdes facility (and is a voucher participant). Teachers are generally a good-intentioned group. They are the type who would be thinking of students in a mid-year move and how to make the upheaval easier. Hell, I have seen teachers battle each other over broken desks that have been put out as refuse because students needed them. Money does not appear to be a prime motivator for this group of dedicated professionals. Many teachers will dig into their own pockets to make sure that their students have what they need. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that some individuals with very expensive lifestyles are counting on (Mickey Landry, Jay Altman, Kathleen Riedlinger…). These buildings are like trinkets in the billion-dollar business enterprise being run by the State-RSD, BESE, and the LDOE. Overpaid administrators keep the teachers in line and away from the boards. And if an overpaid CEO $330,000 (okay Sametta Brown’s salary is half of that, but still!) has to remind a teacher of his or her good fortune to be employed (at this or that charter school), that may be said only once, if at all. 01/26/2015 12:44 PM

  • nickelndime

    This is the part on which I disagree (with R.Rubes – and R. makes a lot of really great, on-point comments). I do not believe that the Morris Jeff board is doing anything particularly well, nor is it doing better than what the rest of the groups (including teachers) are doing for their student populations. Morris Jeff has been tagged as a team player by the RSD and it got ONE OF THE TRINKETS. If one looks carefully at the nearly equal racial distribution and at the at-risk numbers, one might wonder exactly how they (and that includes everbody) have kept the designation of “open” enrollment. No public criticism is allowed or tolerated. These boards, including Morris Jeff, have learned how to conduct business out of the public eye and away from the media. You will not get this kind of reporting from the Times Picayune, and one reporter from THE LENS won’t be able to do it all. Now, here’s the really good part. THE LENS provides for this kind of input and freedom of expression. THAT’S GREAT! 01/26/2015 12:59 PM

  • nickelndime

    Please read above, Mr. R.Rubes, Esq. So happy that you have taken the time to comment. 01/26/2015 1:02 PM