The old John McDonogh High School building on Esplanade Avenue was gleaming Friday morning as children zipped up its historic staircase, through its sleek hallways and into classrooms newly outfitted with state-of-the-art technology.
After a $35 million transformation, the school is worlds apart from the building that neighbors remember from years ago, when floors noticeably sagged, teachers complained of mildew, and pigeons made it inside from windows that came unlocked when the wind blew too hard.
“There is no comparison,” said John Keller, 49, a longtime resident of the area who once taught at John McDonogh and now sends his son to Bricolage Academy, the school that now will occupy the building.
“They put good work into this,” he said. “It was done beautifully.”
The renovations aren’t the only noticeable transformation at the school. The demographics have changed, too, since “John Mac” students last walked the hallways in 2014, the year the historic high school closed its doors.
Starting Tuesday, it will be home to Bricolage, one of the city’s newer charter schools that focuses on engineering, innovative design and a curriculum centered on problem-solving.
Unlike John Mac, Bricolage is an elementary school (pre-K to fifth grade) with a mixed student body. For decades before it closed, John McDonogh High School's enrollment was almost entirely black.
The renovation is good news for residents of Esplanade Ridge, a neighborhood that has long hoped the building would be restored. But reactions to Bricolage's arrival have been mixed.
While that school community is energized by its new campus, others bemoan the fact that the building wasn't restored for John Mac’s use — a slight some say is indicative of the historic neighborhood’s overall gentrification.
“Lots of people were against this school moving in here,” Keller said. “But a lot of people just don’t like change.”
New design, new school
As Josh Densen, Bricolage’s founder and executive director, walked the building’s halls during an open house for parents and children on Friday, he proudly showed off features he said would help the school further its mission of creating future problem-solvers.
Since opening in 2013, the school has jumped from temporary space to temporary space, often making do without such luxuries as central air conditioning, closets or ample outdoor space for young learners.
Now, the school — which created the city’s first Mini Maker Faire, a DIY science, technology and art project festival — has three floors of classrooms, customized storage rooms, outdoor courtyards and plenty of technology.
“Our students are going to experience classrooms at Bricolage like they’ve never experienced before,” Densen said. “And they deserve it.”
The new building features two science labs, two art rooms and two music rooms, including a band room with instrument storage.
Microphones hang from the ceiling in one music room, and the shelves are stocked with tambourines, shakers and little drums. A piano sits in the corner. One of the art rooms has a kiln and a separate space for a darkroom.
On the third floor, the library will be staffed by a part-time librarian, tasked with collecting and curating an appropriate selection of books for budding engineers and artists.
The newly constructed auditorium, which was getting the final touches on Friday, will seat more than 350 people and features green rooms in the back for young actors and dancers.
The gym, which is slated to be finished in October, will have space for physical education on the first floor and a “maker space” gallery on the second.
Every classroom also features a Promethean board, and the “innovation classroom” has a special set-up for the school’s student-run podcast series.
The youngest students will benefit, too. The school is opening its first pre-K 4 class this year and now has a space with bathrooms attached for easier access.
“We believe there will be a more thorough and purposeful use of space this year because of the amount they have to work with,” Densen said.
A historic building
The building may have new features, but officials say they are being careful to preserve the school’s history.
Originally designed by architect E.A. Christy for the Esplanade Girls High School, the building first opened to students in 1912. It was originally envisioned as part of a trio, with Sophie B. Wright and Warren Easton high schools.
Designed in the Late Collegiate Gothic Revival style, it was considered state-of-the-art at the time, according to Ken Ducote, a former John Mac teacher, urban planner and expert on New Orleans school buildings.
At the time, the $188,000 building had such coveted features as a basement floor with no classrooms — an essential for an area that Ducote said frequently flooded — plus restrooms with French tile and Georgia marble and an early version of a kitchen and cafeteria.
“It’s a grand old building with wide hallways and everything,” Ducote said. “But over the years it began to deteriorate.”
The girls school lasted only about a decade, and the building was then reassigned to John McDonogh High School, which opened in 1923 and operated there until its controversial closing in 2014.
It remained all-female until 1952, and was also segregated and designated “whites only” until 1969. It then became predominantly African-American by the mid-1970s, according to Ducote's research.
Over the years, the building changed. John Mac leaders built out space for the school's much-admired band, converted spaces for co-ed use and oversaw an expansion that included new space across Barracks Street and a gymnasium.
At one point, it was also one of the city’s largest high schools. In 1995, enrollment hit nearly 1,400 students.
But by the time John Mac closed, all that had changed. The once well-regarded school was reeling from a bad reputation made worse in 2003, when a tenth-grade student was shot and killed in the school’s gym.
'The worst school'
In 2012, a national charter group called Future Is Now took over the school. Under that leadership, it was dubbed “the worst school in America” in a six-episode reality series called “Blackboard Wars,” featured in 2013 on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
The school closed the following year, after serving just a few hundred students and getting poor performance scores.
After John Mac’s contentious closure — and as a group called the John McDonogh Steering Committee attempted to reclaim the school and turn it over to the Orleans Parish School Board — the Recovery School District announced it was reassigning the building to an elementary school, and put out a call for public bids.
Bricolage was ultimately the top choice.
In February, 193 of its 445 students were black, or about 43 percent.
In 2013, the year John McDonogh announced its closure, 298 of the school’s 310 students were African-American.
“What it is ... is gentrification,” said Ann-Marie Coviello, a member of the steering committee. “It’s criminal.”
Densen has addressed the difference in the two schools before, saying he doesn’t choose who gets in, since Bricolage is open-enrollment. He also said he's committed to creating "culturally competent" classrooms, where teachers are coached on how to deal equitably with students of varying backgrounds.
As his new school settles in, Densen said, he’s been working closely with the John McDonogh High School Alumni Association to properly honor its past. He recently threw a second-line for association members to celebrate the building’s opening, and he’ll soon decide where to put old high school band and sports trophies.
In the meantime, admirers of John Mac say its memory isn’t in danger of fading anytime soon.
“I still bleed green and gold," Ducote said. "And I was just a teacher there.”