A yellow sticky note with the word “Sears” scribbled on it identified veteran teacher Erin Sears’ new classroom.
“Welcome to my room,” she said, beaming at the doorway as she greeted her fellow second-grade teachers late last month.
Sears and about 80 other educators at Morris Jeff Community School were taking a first look at their new Mid-City home after three years in temporary quarters.
Morris Jeff is one of 10 public schools in New Orleans that will move to new or renovated campuses this year. Another 10 or so multimillion-dollar school projects are underway. All are part of a $1.8 billion investment of federal money to rebuild the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.
To give teachers ample time to make the move to the new $29 million campus at 211 S. Lopez St., the 400 students at Morris Jeff got an extra week of winter break.
VergasRome Architects and Fanning Howey designed the 106,000-square-foot school, and FHP Tectronics Corp. was the contractor.
The K-5 elementary school, which incorporates the International Baccalaureate curriculum, opened during the 2010-11 school year under a charter issued by the Recovery School District. Since then, it has bounced from commercial space on Poydras Street to the former Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church on Esplanade Avenue.
“We just shed our tears upstairs when we were talking about what a wonderful opportunity it is for children in New Orleans, who traditionally have not had very good facilities, to really have an opportunity to work and go to school every day in such a beautiful place,” Principal Patricia Perkins said, sitting in her yet-to-be-decorated office.
“We have, on our faculty, quite a few veteran teachers who taught in some of those crumbling conditions. So they recall very clearly how hard it was, and how unfair it was, for our children to have to go to school in those circumstances.”
For the past few years, many public schools in New Orleans have faced frequent moves on their way to permanent homes. That citywide trading of campuses isn’t likely to stop soon.
In fact, there’s already a charter school lined up to take Morris Jeff’s place at Our Lady of the Rosary near Bayou St. John.
The new campus on South Lopez was formerly occupied by Fisk Howard School, one of the many public schools that was flooded after Katrina and sat empty for years. When the building eventually was torn down, the lot was used by neighbors as a makeshift football field or dog park.
Then came months of house-rattling pile-driving and years of construction noise and muddy streets. Despite the annoyances, neighbors were willing to compromise on the number of parking spaces required — meaning more cars will be parked on the street — so Morris Jeff could have a larger school yard.
Sears is excited to introduce families to the building.
She’s also excited about the little things, like having a thermostat she can control. And having the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms next to each other. Not only will that be a time saver, she said, but it will help her more easily keep track of students.
For the first lesson back, the class studied outer space.
“This roof is going to be our moonscape and those are like our Mars rovers,” Sears said, looking out at mechanical equipment on the first-story roof visible from her second-story classroom.
Having a beautiful place to learn, she said, goes a long way toward showing children that learning is valuable and that our society thinks education is important.