NEW ORLEANS — Xavier University Preparatory School 1976 alumna Dale Atkins recalled the most important lesson she learned in high school — “The belief that we can do anything.”
Joined by five other alumni, that idea became reality during the past two months as the group successfully found a way to keep their alma mater from closing its doors at the end of the school year.
“Like everybody else, I cried,” Atkins said of her reaction to the announcement that the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were closing the all-girls Catholic school.
Atkins, a Civil District Court Clerk, said she was in her office when she got the call and went into the bathroom to cry. She then began getting calls from friends who had heard the news. “It was too much emotion. I had to turn my phone off,” Atkins said. “I needed to take that emotion and turn it into something positive.”
After the initial shock and grief, alumni mobilized with hundreds gathering to discuss any option other than closure.
In the Lower 9th Ward, school President Joseph Peychaud spoke in front of a distressed but determined crowd of well more than 500 about the estimated cost of the prime Uptown real estate in addition to annual operating costs.
Two efforts to save the school were born from that day. The Xavier Prep Foundation Fund formed after the meeting, using a global network of alumni, a website and billboards to aggressively seek donations.
Across the city, Atkins and the five others — all alumni historically active in supporting the school — gathered in a living room.
“Xavier Prep not only provided me with a quality education, it instilled in me a can-do attitude,” Atkins said. “We have to be committed to St. Katharine Drexel’s dream of helping others and the community.”
Drexel founded the school in 1915 as part of her lifelong mission to provide quality education for Native Americans and African-Americans. Drexel died in 1955 and was canonized in 2000.
Karen Wells Roby, a 1979 graduate and federal magistrate judge, said that the school gave her the feeling that leading was natural, as a woman and an African-American.
“I attribute the courage and feeling that it’s normal for us to lead to Prep,” said Roby, who has held numerous leadership positions over her career. “I didn’t want the girls to lose the opportunity to have that.”
When the closure was announced to students, Roby said she saw tears and sadness, and thought “Wait — we were taught not to quit. When things are bleak, we pray. When things are bleak, we get together and work.”
The support from the community was overwhelming, Atkins said.
Keith Doley, an attorney and 1968 alum, said the school’s existence is important as “one of the few schools in the country that caters to a segment of the population — building and molding young girls into young women to be leaders in the community.”
Atkins, Roby and Doley were joined by Piper Griffin, a 1980 alum and chief judge at Civil District Court; Shantelle Payton, an attorney and class of 1997 alum; and Edwin Lombard, a 1964 alum and judge on the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.
Lombard and Doley attended Xavier Prep before it changed into an all-girls school in 1970.
Once they realized that the decision made by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was irreversible, they understood that they needed purchase the property, Atkins said.
Thus was formed the non-profit 5116 Magazine Street Preparatory High School Corp.
Since all of the members have a legal background, Atkins said they quickly split onto different tasks. The most immediate were securing financing, finding legal representation, communicating with the school and getting an appraisal on the property.
They knew they had to move very quickly to make something happen, she said. The end of the year was approaching and parents needed to know where their girls would be attending school next year. Many Catholic schools require a May 1 commitment deadline.
They were operating separately but in communication with the newly formed foundation and with a common goal, Atkins and Roby said.
Atkins said that they did not use money raised by the foundation in purchasing the property, but the two groups continue to work closely together and will likely merge in the near future.
Atkins said the Pennsylvania order of nuns that owns the school was supportive of what they were trying to accomplish, but it was clear that it would be a new incarnation of Xavier Prep, given the new name of St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory High School.
Roby said they’ve been putting a lot of time in on weekends and that Dale told her to get used to 7 a.m. phone calls to take care of the business of running a school before going to work.
While they want to maintain traditions, Roby also talked excitedly about changing the school for the better. She said they have plans to make sure students are prepared for pursuing careers demanded by the current and future job market.
“We want our girls to be at the forefront of the various business sectors that make up the area,” Roby said, including law, business, education, technology, scientific research and medicine.
They are already in conversations with Xavier University, for which the high school has been a feeder in perception and name, but without a formal relationship.
“We are not where we used to be,” Xavier Prep Principal Cheryllyn Branche said. “We want to be better — with academic standards, curriculum and community involvement.”
While low enrollment was part of the reason for closure given by the sisters, Roby said she is confident they will reach their initial enrollment goals for next year and expand from there. She said the school has a capacity of 400 students. They gave out 200 applications at a meeting Monday, and Roby said they are already needing to print more.
There was no question about remaining a Catholic school, Roby said, and they will be sponsored by the Archdiocese. “The Archbishop has given us 100 percent support,” she said.
Branche said the atmosphere has changed at the school since last week’s official announcement that the school would remain open, though as a new school.
“The children felt as if on hold,” she said. “They were in limbo. Now they are free to choose to return.”
Dejah Tanner, a 10th-grader at Xavier Prep, said she is very happy to know she will be attending school next year with the same friends she’s been with since seventh grade.
“I’m so excited to stay a part of the sisterhood,” classmate Kylie Bates said.
The current faculty will have to apply for positions with the new school, but Branche said the goal is to maintain familiarity for the girls while doing their best “to afford the students the opportunities they should have.”
Senior Dasia Payton will be graduating, but the decision is still important to her.
“I’m grateful and thankful that the school will remain open for other girls to grow spiritually and academically,” she said. “The friendships formed here will be the same friends we have forever once we leave.”
Doley joked that the women tease him because he would like to see the school open again to boys. He said there may be an opportunity for that in the future — but likely in a “creative way,” perhaps in opening a separate school for boys.
“All things are on the table in terms of trying to keep the dream alive,” Doley said.
Doley pointed to the convent where Drexel lived and the “sacred ground” on which she walked.
“I just could not see it turning into a commercial development,” he said.
“It’s going to work,” Lombard said. “St. Katherine Drexel is looking over us.”