The name and owners may have changed at Xavier University Preparatory School, but to Kelli Saulny, 34, the Magazine Street school’s environment feels the same as it did when she wore its yellow-and-black plaid uniforms as a teenager.
Though Saulny now lives in New York City, working as director of operations for the cosmetics company Carol’s Daughter, she returns home once a month during the school year. On those visits, she and some of her closest friends, all fellow Xavier Prep alumni, hold Saturday workshops for students at what is now St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School.
At the end of the workshops, Saulny and her friends typically express a common sentiment, she said: “We all leave thinking, ‘This is like we were in high school.’ It feels exactly the same.”
Saulny said she remembers her high school days as extremely uplifting and supportive. “I don’t know what the special sauce is,” she said, “but I always went to Prep knowing that it would be a good day.”
Last month, school administrators and alumni kicked off a yearlong centennial commemoration of the rich history of the institution often called simply “the Prep.”
Two years ago, a group of graduates stepped in to save the all-girls school after the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament decided to close it.
Jaz Hall, 16, now a senior and the president of the Student Council, remembers being devastated by the announcement. As a freshman, she had loved her first year at Xavier Prep. Also, the announcement was made in February, too late in the school year to transfer anywhere else desirable, she said.
“When I first heard that the school was closing, I started crying,” she said. “Then something came over me. I said, ‘My school will not close down.’ I had faith in God — and the alumni — that they wouldn’t allow it to happen.”
As it turned out, Hall’s faith was well-placed. Five well-known local leaders — attorneys Keith Doley and Shantell Payton, Civil District Court Clerk Dale Atkins and Judges Piper Griffin and Edwin Lombard — reached out to the sisters to see if the school could somehow stay open a year, to make for a smoother transition.
“As we were negotiating with their lawyer, a message came back: ‘If you want to keep it open, buy it,’ “ said Doley, 65, who graduated from the school in 1968, before it became all-girls.
The group didn’t have the money to buy the school outright, but it soon became the steward of a nonprofit entity - 5116 Magazine Street Preparatory High School Corp. - and negotiated a purchase with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
The five shared a determination to keep the school operating.
“You have a 98-year heritage that could end. What do you do?” Doley said. “I don’t think any one of us ever thought twice about that. It’s like your child falling into a pool and you not knowing how to swim. You jump into the water and save that child. That’s what we did.”
New name, old traditions
Griffin said the Xavier Prep school climate was something precious that needed saving. She said the school is doing well now, though it still holds fundraisers to help provide scholarships to needy students, because not all of the families can afford the $6,320 tuition charged for eighth-graders this year or the roughly $8,300 tuition for the higher grades.
For legal reasons, the new owners couldn’t keep the name Xavier Prep, so the stewards renamed the school for its founder, Katharine Drexel, who was canonized as a saint in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.
Beyond the name, though, the new owners maintained as much consistency as they could, retaining not only the site but the mascot — the yellow jacket — and the school colors, in addition to long-held traditions like the moving-up ceremony in the spring, when seniors yield their traditional seating area to the juniors, who yield their spot to the sophomores and so on.
Also still intact is the revered “big sister” tradition, which assigns an older student to every new freshman, to help guide her through the first year of high school.
Hall saw almost no change in her daily education after the school’s sale, she said. Though the school is no longer run by the nuns, it is still a Catholic institution and students still pray before every class and at the beginning and end of each school day. “Basically, everything is still the same; just the name has changed,” Hall said.
Yet her class, which started out with 64 members, dipped to about half that number in her sophomore year because many of her classmates had transferred soon after the school-closure announcement, before the purchase was announced in April of that year.
That caused some cuts at the institution and some concern among alumni, who worried that the school might not be financially strong enough if the classes got too small. But the enrollment is rising again, to the point where Hall was assigned two little sisters this year in the 65-girl freshman class.
And when she’s in her yellow-and-black uniform, she said, she is treated well by Prep alumni all across town. “So many places I go, I get discounts not only for myself but the people with me,” Hall said.
The school’s ties certainly run deep in New Orleans. The school’s alumni roll includes two New Orleans first ladies, Sybil Haydel Morial and Mickey Lauria Barthelemy.
Recently, Judge Lombard came to speak to Hall’s class and urged them to come to him for anything they need as they apply for scholarships for college or look for other opportunities after graduation. She told him about an internship she’d had with Juvenile Court; he suggested that she send him an email and learn more about the summer internships offered by his court, the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
A fourth vow
Drexel, a Philadelphia banking heiress and philanthropist, devoted much of her life to the education of Native American and African-American students.
In 1915, she founded Xavier Prep; it was owned and operated by a group of nuns from the religious order she’d created, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In addition to pledging to lead lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, women entering the order also made a fourth vow: “not to undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian or Colored races.”
Drexel purchased the school’s Uptown site, formerly home to Southern University, which had moved to Baton Rouge. To make the purchase, Drexel had to go through a third party, because neighbors reportedly weren’t happy to have another institution devoted to the education of black students in their midst. She also sent seven nuns to establish a Blessed Sacrament convent on the site.
By September 1915, the sisters had recruited 50 students. Teachers were required to have a teaching degree, which was unusual at the time but something that Drexel insisted was necessary to provide high-quality education.
Xavier University, the nation’s only historically black Catholic college, began as part of the school on Magazine Street. It graduated its first college class from there 13 years later, several years before Drexel bought land for a separate campus in the Gert Town neighborhood and moved the university there.
But the high school itself is also considered a landmark institution. Though McDonogh 35 Senior High School would open two years later, Xavier Prep was, at the time, the city’s only coed high school serving African-Americans. St. Mary’s Academy was already operating and educating black girls, but there was no other secondary school for Catholic boys until St. Augustine opened in 1950.
“When Prep was established, St. Mary’s was the only other (black) Catholic high school in New Orleans. And St. Mary’s was all-female. So if you wanted to send your sons to Catholic school, Xavier Prep was it. Until St. Augustine came along in the early 1950s, you had a 35-year window with no other options if you wanted a Catholic education for your son,” said Lansen Barrow, 63, who graduated with the school’s last coed class in 1970. ?For Barrow, school loyalty also was cultivated at home. His youngest sister went there along with two other sisters and a cousin. “It was a legacy school for a lot of families,” he said.
When Barrow attended the centennial kickoff last month, he saw women who had graduated within the past decade dancing alongside an 86-year-old woman. “And the 2006 alum was just as proud of having gone through those halls as the 1945 alum was,” Barrow said. “We seem to have a very real connectedness. We’re connected to each other and to the school.”
So, as Hall walks across the stage to get her diploma this spring, accompanying her will be members of the Class of 1966, which graduated 50 years ago. That’s another lauded school tradition. Marching in the 50-year class will be longtime school volunteer Anatalie Bachemin, 67, a retired educator who graduated in a large class, totaling 183 graduates.
At the time she attended Prep, the tuition was $20 a month, the Blessed Sacrament convent was full and she was taught mostly by nuns dressed in full habits. But the happy experience was the same. “Being here at Prep was the best time in my life,” Bachemin said.
Once she retired, she began volunteering at the school, arriving early in the morning and often leaving when it’s dark.
“We were always encouraged to give back,” Bachemin said. “If I need to wash windows, I’ll do it.”
A place to find oneself
More than anything else, students and graduates of the Prep say the school nurtured their individuality. “It’s a place where you can find yourself,” Hall said, in a current-day echo of the sentiments of Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin, 53, who graduated in 1980.
The teaching staff helped the students determine their strengths, said Griffin, who hears it often: “I didn’t become who I am until I got my Prep education.”
Barrow remembers being pushed in English and with analytical thinking.
Griffin said she entered as a freshman with no idea of what she wanted to do in life. “I had no clue,” she said. Soon, teachers helped her focus. “I was encouraged to do speech and debate, because I liked to talk,” she said. She also played sports and was encouraged to broaden her interests by trying a wide range of activities.
She also learned to give back, to serve people, she said. “Some of my classmates who grew up in public housing were still told that there is someone worse off than you: ‘You should always reach down and pull up.’ ”
As a result, Griffin came into her own. “I wasn’t the valedictorian. But I knew I could accomplish something. I could be the best Piper Griffin I could be.”
Jane Bell, the school’s part-time development director who works full-time because of her devotion to the school, recalled being satisfied with getting B’s in math until the teacher asked to speak with her. “I know you can do better,” he told her.
“I was a complacent teen. I thought B’s were fine,” she said. But she soon learned that she had to live up to her potential. If she didn’t, she’d hear about it from anyone who noticed, whether it was the teachers, the maintenance people or the cafeteria cooks. “The common thread is that everyone really cares,” Bell said. “It’s like they’ve taken each one of us on as a personal project.”
Nearly all of the Prep alumni interviewed for this story say that they formed their closest friendships there. “A lot of people think it’s odd that my best friends came from high school; most of theirs came from college,” Saulny said.
Griffin, too, said some of her closest present-day friends are ex-classmates from Prep. “You always have that sense of family,” she said, using an oft-used expression.
“Once a Prepper, always a Prepper,” she said.