Colleen Francois Normand remembers when African-American students were first integrated into John F. Kennedy Senior High School, a sprawling and idyllic campus once located next to New Orleans City Park, across from Bayou St. John.
“My sister and brother graduated in ’73 and ’74, and they were some of the first black people to graduate from there,” Normand said as she stood in front of the empty field the school used to occupy. “By the time I graduated, in ’78, it was still about 93 percent white. But we all got along.”
Normand was one of more than a dozen Kennedy alumni who gathered Saturday at the school’s former site at 5700 Wisner Blvd. to protest the fact it was never reopened after Hurricane Katrina ravaged it nearly a decade ago. Normand and other alumni said the school’s closing — and the lack of effort by education officials to reopen it — is indicative that black communities are not being given priority as the city continues to rebuild from the 2005 flood.
Kennedy was built after Hurricane Betsy in the 1960s on land the Orleans Parish School Board acquired from City Park. The school would eventually become iconic in the African-American community, known for its student pride and for having one of the best bands in the city.
Over the years, Kennedy produced alumni such as “Dreamgirls” actress JoNell Kennedy and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. But the last students took their seats in 2005, just before Katrina left the building in shambles.
“Katrina happened, and this is the end result,” said LahCrista Paul, who was wearing a JFK Class of ’99 shirt. “The state is showing education in New Orleans isn’t a priority. This was not a failing school before the storm.”
Normand and Paul are part of a group created earlier this year to ask why Kennedy was never rebuilt. As members picketed in front of the closed-off field, they held signs that read, “Rebuild! Rebuild! John F. Kennedy Senior High School Now! Now!” and “We Need Schools, Not Jails!! Let’s Educate Kids.”
Kennedy is among more than a dozen school sites that were landbanked after Katrina, meaning they were set aside for other public or private redevelopment projects, not for new schools, according to the School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish, published in 2008. The school was torn down in 2011.
The alumni who gathered Saturday said FEMA money allocated for schools after the storm should have been used to rebuild Kennedy and that the OPSB has a duty to black residents in New Orleans to reopen schools that once served as pillars for their communities.
In early March, then-interim Superintendent of OPSB Schools Stan Smith said in a statement that Kennedy’s shuttering was one of many “difficult decisions” the School Board and the Recovery School District had to make when creating their joint Master Plan.
“Difficult decisions were necessary on where and which facilities to rebuild or renovate to accommodate the 46,000 students currently attending public schools in Orleans Parish (down 25 percent post-Katrina),” Smith said.
As of 2015, there are 85 public schools in Orleans Parish — down from more than 120 before Katrina.
“The School Facilities Master Plan did not include rebuilding at the former John F. Kennedy High School site, nor are there funds available for that project at this time,” Smith continued. “The plan’s goal is to ensure that every student is in a safe and secure facility and that the facilities are strategically located through the city based on student demographics.”
In 2011, RSD spokeswoman Siona LaFrance said the Kennedy site was remaining undeveloped because of population realities.
“The capacity just wasn’t needed there,” she said, according to an article at the time on nola.com.
The land would likely be auctioned off for use for another purpose, the article added.
According to the Master Plan, several former school sites were redeveloped for community purposes. More than a dozen vacant sites were used by the New Orleans Recreation Department as public parks and playgrounds, and others were developed as housing or transitional homes.
John Hopper, City Park’s development director, said in 2011 he hoped the Kennedy High land would be returned to the park.
On Saturday, Monique Cook, Class of ’85, said she and other former students have asked various agencies what will happen to the land but have yet to receive an answer.
Saying that the school sat on “prime real estate,” William Mitchell questioned the decision to landbank the site in the first place.
“A school that primarily served African-Americans was torn down, with no regard to our needs,” Mitchell said. “It seems to me that there is an agenda other than education.”
Officials with the OPSB, the RSD and the Louisiana Department of Education could not be reached Saturday.
Paul said the alumni group would continue to fight until the school is reopened, regardless of location.
“My passion is to bring our school back whether it’s here or in the East, or Uptown, or wherever,” Paul said. “Our fight right now is to bring Kennedy back, period.”