Loyal and influential alumni, many clad in maroon and gold, flooded the new $59.5 million home for McDonogh No. 35 High School on Wednesday.
“I could feel the pride in the air when I walked in,” said Dianne Baquet, 65, who graduated with the school’s class of 1969.
The state-of-the-art building, located at 4000 Cadillac St. near Bayou St. John, is considered key to McDonogh 35’s return to the position of academic prominence it held for nearly a century. School scores have lagged since its post-Katrina reopening in January 2006, when its long-standing selective-admission standards were dropped to accommodate as many returning students as possible.
As Louisiana’s oldest high school serving African-American students, begun in 1917, McDonogh 35 long ago reached legendary status for its notable graduates, who include the city’s first black mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial; the state’s first elected black district judge, Israel Augustine Jr.; and the Rev. A.L. Davis, the city’s first black City Council member and before that a civil rights icon.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he is “surrounded by McDonogh 35 grads” at City Hall.
“The city would not be the same without it,” he said of the school, which began in a building at 655 S. Rampart St. and for the past 43 years was at 1331 Kerlerec St., not far from the intersection of St. Claude and St. Bernard avenues.
Historian and writer Keith Weldon Medley, whose mother was an alumna, said that in a state that was reluctant to provide education for black students at the high school level, McDonogh 35 was sought-after.
“It was the place to go,” he said, noting that the city’s second black high school, Booker T. Washington, didn’t open until 1942 and then was portrayed as a career-preparatory technical school in order to appease state officials.
There is a long list of public officials who call themselves “Roneagles,” the school’s mascot. On Wednesday, the officials present included Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who was McDonogh 35’s drum major in 1987; former City Councilman James Carter, a 1987 classmate of Harrison’s; City Councilman Jared Brossett, who graduated in 2000; and former Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Darryl Kilbert, class of 1974.
FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office branch chief, Eddie Williams, was a 1990 graduate.
The so-called “mayor of the Lower 9th Ward,” Henry Irvin Sr., represented the class of 1954.
A 1946 alumna and teacher, Jeanne Cunningham Augustine, recalled having to buy all her classroom supplies, as did the chemistry teachers, who had to buy her own chemicals.
Augustine concluded with advice for today’s students: “Ask questions if you don’t understand. And keep asking until you understand.”
Those nodding in the rows facing Augustine were hundreds of people with similar success stories, including LaToya Phillips, who came to represent her father, Eramus Felton, 64, a McDonogh 35 grad who became the first black student at Tulane University to earn a doctorate in mathematics, and whose grandson, Beshawn Phillips, now is an eighth-grader at the school.
Given the new building, the only thing that separates its students from greatness is “opportunity,” Landrieu said, riffing off the recent Emmy Award acceptance speech of actress Viola Davis.
Henderson Lewis Jr., new superintendent for the Orleans Parish School Board, said that, beyond the seasoned staff, he was particularly impressed by elements like three specialty classrooms for the school’s engineering program, part of an emphasis on science and math.
Altogether, the facility includes 47 classrooms, two gyms, a large auditorium, a cafeteria, band and music rooms, a dance studio and nearly a dozen science or computer labs. It’s set on a 16-acre site not far from where Interstate 610 passes over the bayou, on a site previously home to two schools: Vorice Jackson Waters Elementary and Edward H. Phillips Junior High.
Dejon Jarreau, a basketball player and senior, said he loves the gyms and all the classrooms. “The teachers are great; it feels like they’re trying to live up to the potential of the building. And I think it makes us all want to learn,” he said.