NEW ORLEANS — The public forum held Wednesday evening in Algiers was rife with disagreement, passionate pleas and angry rants, but there was one thing that both supporters of L.B. Landry High School and O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School agreed on: Nobody wants to see the proposed unification of the two schools become a reality.
Despite the best efforts of Algiers Charter School Association board member D’Juan Hernandez to keep the discussion on how to handle unification, as soon as his Power Point presentation displayed a screen with the proposed name “Landry Walker,” tempers began to flare.
The revised School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish, approved by the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education and Orleans Parish School Board, calls for unifying the Algiers high schools to better match available seats to demographics.
John White, who was then superintendent of the Recovery School District, unveiled plans on Nov. 1, 2011 to shrink Landry and move Walker into the recently constructed state-of the-art Landry building for the 2013-2014 school year. That announcement stemmed from the facilities master plan that the Orleans Parish School Board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had voted on in the summer of 2011, he said.
The role of the ACSA is to manage the conversation about how the unification will happen, Hernandez said. Wednesday’s meeting was the second in a week to solicit feedback from the community.
A draft plan calls for Walker principal Mary Laurie to lead a single program, grades nine through 12, with all staff employed by the ACSA.
Although the 2008 master plan lists the building’s capacity at 1,000 students, the ACSA said the building would serve 1,300 students and that every student from both schools would be guaranteed a seat.
Currently, there are more than 900 students at Walker and close to 400 at Landry. Enrollment for Landry was frozen last spring in order to prepare for the merger as well as fill available seats at higher-performing schools, according to RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard.
The plan also calls for extensive student engagement for determining the new school’s mascot, colors and motto. The name “Landry Walker” means “one team, one band, one school,” Hernandez said — a statement that was met with laughs, snorts, guffaws.
“We don’t have a problem with who comes to Landry,” 1960 graduate and former Denver Bronco Richard Jackson said. “We have a problem with the name. We will not support anything other than L.B. Landry. If you want peace and harmony in the community, Landry today, Landry tomorrow, Landry forever,” Jackson said.
Derek LaMothe, president of Friends of Landry, said that he disagreed with the demographics argument. He said Algiers has grown by about 20,000 since Hurricane Katrina and said that the ACSA is getting “ advice from people who don’t have a clue about what is going on.”
LaMothe, who has worked at both schools and is known as “Coach Skip,” said that he regularly talks to the kids. “Walker kids don’t want to come to Landry, and Landry kids don’t want to come to Walker,” he said.
Several police officers on hand stepped in to stop a near-brawl after Landry supporter Kenneth Grooms questioned how the planning committee, which included representatives for Landry, could go along with the proposed plans.
One Landry representative, Darryl Williams, defended his position and said that for him, one thing was non-negotiable: the name on the building.
Tarence Davis, a representative for Walker, defended his participation and said that he believed that “both schools deserve to exist independently,” and that is still his fight, but that the name proposal stemmed from efforts to treat children from both schools equitably. “Our name, our legacy, deserves a right to exist,” he said, of Walker.
Davis urged the community to fight together and not to turn on each other.
Education activist Eric Jones listed the many schools that have been given new or renovated buildings and questioned why Walker, a school that has made academic leaps and bounds, has not earned the same right. “They should give you enough respect to give you your own building,” Jones told the Walker community.
ACSA Interim CEO Adrian Morgan said that while the current Walker building was structurally sound, a $20 million renovation would be required in order to get it to the new 21st century requirements.
Dana Peterson, RSD deputy superintendent, said in a phone interview that the Walker facility would be used as a “swing space,” in the short term, temporarily housing students while their buildings were rebuilt or renovated. In the long term it will be land banked.
Peterson acknowledged that the name of the school was one of the most contentious aspects, but said that the kids would follow the tone and leadership set by the adults.
The most important thing is that students in the neighborhood get the best possible education in the best possible facilities, Peterson said. “It’s not as much about losing identity as it is gaining a bright future,” Peterson said, adding that the ongoing conversation seeks to figure out how to best preserve the legacies of both schools.
Several people at the meeting expressed concern about growing tension and threats of violence between students as well as rival gangs in the area. “We don’t need to risk children’s’ lives because of this foolishness,” said Raynard Casimier, a Walker alumni and pastor in Algiers.
But Walker master teacher Ingrid Muse contested that controlling the violence between young people is first the responsibility of parents.
Of the schools’ namesakes, Casimier decried putting Lord Beaconsfield Landry, a “liberator,” next to O. Perry Walker, a “segregationist and a racist.”
If the merger does take place, Muse said, it would be a disservice to the children not to have a workable plan in place for the opening of the 2013 school year.
Walker student Ariane Johnson, who has attended several community meetings, said she’s worked hard for three years and wants to graduate from Walker.
But she also said that the school’s name is not as important as what happens insde, and she hopes the community can come together.
“It doesn’t matter what school you go to, it’s the pride inside of you,” Johnson said. “I will always be a Charger.”
This story was altered on Dec. 14, 2012