The charter organization Knowledge Is Power Program officially opened its $26 million school building at Columbia Parc in Gentilly, a milestone in a plan to create a neighborhood school in the mixed-income development.

The new building, located at 3805 St. Bernard Avenue, now houses the kindergarten through eighth-grade students attending KIPP Believe. Before construction was completed, students attended two separate schools that operated under the same charter: The K-4 KIPP Believe Primary that opened in 2011 and the 5th-through-8th grade KIPP Believe College Prep, which first opened in 2006.

The building, which began holding classes last month but held its opening ceremonies on Wednesday, can house 750 students. It includes 42 classrooms, enrichment and media centers, science labs, art rooms and conference spaces.

The campus also includes a 7,500 square-foot gymnasium and an outdoor playing field near St. Bernard Avenue.

Gerry Barousse, founding chairman of the Bayou District Foundation that led development of the Columbia Parc neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, said a neighborhood school had been envisioned as an anchor to the project since 2006, when officials began the process of creating the mixed-income area where the St. Bernard housing project once stood.

"In order for our families to really succeed and excel, we had to have cradle to college education as a part of a broader community," Barousse said. "We knew that was an integral part."

In recent years, the school had been one of the biggest missing pieces in the Columbia Parc puzzle, a community development that includes 685 mixed-income residential units spanning 13 city blocks in Gentilly.

The Foundation entered an agreement with the board of directors for charter-school operator KIPP New Orleans several years ago, and plans for the new school were approved by the City Planning Commission in 2017.

The construction of KIPP Believe is one of only a few charter organizations to have built its own school from the ground up, instead of occupying a building built or renovated by the Orleans Parish School Board. It also employed a unique financing arrangement where it was helped by private partnerships as well as tax-credit financing, the latter of which hasn't often been undertaken by charter-school operators. 

"This building represents not only a placeholder for the community, but also a shining example of what happens when people think a little bit outside the box and decide to use public-private partnerships," said Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who used to serve on KIPP's board.

Officials said Wednesday's opening was also considered a "watershed moment" for KIPP, which had been dealing with school facilities issues for years.

Unlike charter schools elsewhere, most in New Orleans are entitled to borrow a building from the school board when they sign their charter contract, and aren't responsible for lease payments for as long as they are in operation.

Like most other charters, KIPP charter schools were also entitled to buildings with their contracts, and only were required to pay for insurance and routine maintenance.

However, KIPP opted to finance an independent location after playing musical chairs with different buildings. The children enrolled in the two KIPP schools went to a total of nine different school buildings over 13 years thanks to a myriad of citywide issues that included aging facilities, high construction costs and building shortages.

KIPP Believe College Prep first opened in 2006 at the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Elementary building on South Carrollton Avenue. For awhile, officials with the Recovery School District had planned for that to be the school's permanent location, and in 2015 the school moved into a swing space in the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary campus in Hollygrove while the McNair building was renovated.

When those plans changed, however, the school moved to Holy Rosary until the Columbia Parc school was built.

KIPP isn't the first organization to find original ways to house students, according to Ken Ducote, a facilities expert and director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools.

He noted that Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy is currently being built in partnership with Ochsner Health System in Jefferson Parish, for example, and New Orleans Military Academy in 2013 built a new campus by renovating two historic Navy buildings in Algiers using a combination of Community Development Block Grants and tax credits.

"This is another creative, innovative way of doing the buildings without tying up the public funds," Ducote said.

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