Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy. Credit: Dominic Scott / The Lens

Walter L. Cohen College Prep staff and students will be one step closer to a brand new high school when they move out of their building at the end of this month, clearing the way for a new school to rise.

Their home for the next two to three years will be the recently shuttered Edgar Harney elementary school. Meanwhile, the Recovery School District will construct a $32 million school at Cohen’s current site on the 3500 block of Dryades. Cohen is now under local oversight through the Orleans Parish School Board, but the construction project is part of a $2 billion school facilities plan managed by the OPSB and the state-run RSD.

Harney is about a mile away off South Claiborne Avenue.

Harney now transitions from a permanent school site to an Orleans Parish school district “swing-space.” It’s one of dozens of facilities that have temporarily housed schools in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Schools have made planned moves, for construction or building upgrades, while others have had to make emergency moves, as was the case for Lafayette Academy, which had to find emergency space after a possible asbestos contamination.

The Harney site on Willow Street previously served as a temporary home for Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School during the 2006-2007 school year. The Recovery School District reopened it as Edgar P. Harney Elementary in 2007. In 2010, it became the Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy.

In recent years, the charter school had been plagued by leadership turnover and financial irregularities. After a series of warnings, the Orleans Parish school district took control of Harney from its nonprofit charter board in January and announced it would close after the end of the school year.

The Central City elementary school will require some upgrades to house the roughly 370 students who attend Cohen. Crews are replacing Harney’s “child-sized toilet fixtures with standard sized toilets and relocating elementary age furniture to other schools,” district Communications Director Tania Dall told The Lens in an email.

Meanwhile, College Prep CEO Joel Castro said the charter network is working to make Harney feel like home to the high school students who will spend two to three years in the building.

“We are excited about a bust of Walter L. Cohen, commissioned by the Cohen Alumni association, which will be unveiled in the next several weeks and will be on display at Harney,” Castro wrote in an email. “We are in the process of having temporary signage made for the building, in addition to several items that will be brought over from the current location, to give the swing space the Cohen spirit and feel.”

The charter group will also host a neighborhood event.

“We are planning events at Harney, the first being a Cohen Flag Raising and Welcome to the Neighborhood event,” Castro wrote. “We realize that Cohen is a temporary resident of the building, and we are planning neighborhood walks to show the community our appreciation.”

Cohen opened in 1949, one of the first high schools in the city open to African-American students. It joined the New Orleans College Prep charter network in 2011. Its alumni group has been active in the school, and Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association president serves on the charter group’s nonprofit board.

In October of 2015, Cohen was part of a three-campus deal that allowed the school to remain where it was, something alumni wanted very much. That arrangement gave the yet-to-be-constructed Booker T. Washington High School to KIPP New Orleans Schools, KIPP agreed to build a school for KIPP Believe in Columbia Parc, and funds intended for KIPP Believe were set to be dedicated to Cohen for a new school.

There are still decisions to be made about Cohen’s new building at its permanent location. At a College Prep board meeting last August, board member and alumni association president Jim Raby said he would speak on behalf of the association that night. The group wants Cohen’s existing 150,000 square-foot school to be remodeled — not rebuilt, he said.

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported that the Recovery School District issued a request for proposals for a 110,000 square-foot school that could hold 600 students.

According to a May report from RSD Superintendent Kunjan Narechania, HMS Architecture will be the architect on the project. Funding will come from the district’s historic $1.8 billion settlement with FEMA as well as Community Development Block Grant money.

Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said design of the new Cohen is underway. Demolition of the old building will begin in October 2019 and construction will start in May 2020. The building is expected to be finished in the summer of 2022.

Castro said Cohen will get the keys to the Harney building on June 28.

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...