Built in the late 1950s, Redemptorist High School’s north Baton Rouge campus has been just that — a school — for its entire existence. After the last students leave on the final day of classes May 21, it’s not clear what the campus will be used for next.
Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Williams, who represents the area, said she’s followed the school’s decline for years and fielded calls from local businesses worried about the effect of losing a local institution. She is ready to work with Catholic leaders, if asked, to help make sure the campus is used productively.
“I would hate to see it become an eyesore,” Williams said.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge so far is deflecting questions about what it plans to do with the old Catholic high school and accompanying junior high.
When he announced on Dec. 19 that he was closing Redemptorist due to declining enrollment, Bishop Robert Muench would not address the future of the campus at 4000 St. Gerard Ave. He said he’d been so busy wrestling with whether to close the school that he hadn’t really thought about what to do with the empty campus.
On Friday, Donna Carville, spokeswoman for the diocese, would not comment on possible future uses of the property. She said the diocese is focusing on a “successful closure” of the high school and junior high. Pressed about the matter, Carville promised that the campus won’t become a blighted property.
“This is our property, and we will maintain our property,” she promised.
In a list of frequently asked questions released when the school closure was announced, the diocese’s Finance and Building committees were identified as the entities that would help the bishop determine the future of the Redemptorist campus.
Lawrence Robillard, president of Redemptorist’s alumni association, said he often hears rumors about groups expressing interest in the campus, but he’s not sure what to believe.
“We’ve heard a thousand rumors going around, but there’s no meat on the bone,” Robillard said.
The long strip of property between St. Gerard Avenue and Hollywood Street won’t be completely empty if the high school and junior high close this summer as planned. The feeder school, Redemptorist Elementary, which currently tops out at sixth grade, will remain open. In fact, it will add a seventh and eighth grade this fall and the year after that.
Curt Soderberg, an architect and owner of CSRS, a firm based in Baton Rouge, has some experience with school closures. He has helped oversee school building programs in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. One aspect of Soderberg’s work has been figuring out the best reuse for schools that are closed. Leaving a school, really any building, unused for long is a bad idea, he said.
“Buildings don’t fare very well when they are not used,” he said. “They need to be used. They are like cars that way.”
Old schools that are of architectural interest and located in areas with rising property values are sometimes successfully converted to residences or other uses, but Redemptorist High is in a part of town with relatively low property values and it might be costly to convert it to anything other than a school, he said.
“I think the best option is for a charter school to land there,” Soderberg said.
That’s a controversial option. Across the country, many Catholic schools in urban areas have closed, and charter schools have taken their place. Since 2000, about 2,000 Catholic schools have closed nationwide, and overall enrollment has declined by more than 600,000 students.
Baton Rouge is in the midst of a state-sponsored growth spurt when it comes to charter schools — public schools run by private organizations via a charter, or contract. Twenty-three charter schools are now operating in the metro area. Several more have been approved or are pursuing charters, and many of them are trying to figure out where to locate.
Despite official disavowals from the diocese, some Redemptorist supporters have pointed to another possible reason for closing Redemptorist: Cristo Rey Baton Rouge High School. This is proposed Catholic high school would start in 2016 and is looking for a home.
Brian Melton, director of student growth with the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, said Friday that his organization, which operates 28 schools, always works hard to avoid negatively affecting other high schools as it has expanded nationwide, and Baton Rouge is no exception.
“We have three potential sites among a lot of sites, and Redemptorist has never been one of them,” Melton said.
Cristo Rey organizers are busy trying to persuade at least 35 local business leaders to finance once-a-week jobs for its school’s inner-city students that will offset tuition costs; the organizers plan to wrap up their feasibility study by May.
Melton said Cristo Rey wants a home close to downtown Baton Rouge, close to the businesses offering internships, thus being less expensive when it comes to transportation costs.
For its part, the “Save Redemptorist” group has not given up its push to keep Redemptorist alive as an independent Catholic school, despite the bishop’s rejection Jan. 24 of their proposal to keep the school open.
Now, they have launched an online petition drive, directing their appeal to none other than Pope Francis. The petition specifically requests that the pope prevent the sale of Redemptorist to a charter school.
“We are seeking your assistance in keeping the school open,” reads the petition. “Time is of the essence.”
An appeals process is spelled out in sections 1732 to 1739 of the Catholic Church canon law for church members seeking to overturn decisions of local dioceses.
Attempts to reach petition organizers Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.