Advocates plead for last French Quarter elementary school to stay

Homer Plessy Community School on St. Philip Street faces proposed relocation
Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 10:19 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Advocates for the French Quarter’s last remaining elementary school pleaded with New Orleans Public Schools leadership to leave it where it stands at a meeting Monday night (March 13).

NOLA-PS Superintendent Dr. Avis Williams informed the board of Homer Plessy Community School in early March that the school was facing relocation, because of the facility’s age and the expected cost of refurbishing it to the standards set by the Orleans Parish School Board.

But amid a groundswell of opposition to the move, Williams rolled back the decision and called two community meetings for this week.

“The decision has not been made yet,” Williams said, “and we are looking at gathering data points to include information from families as we make a decision.”

Williams said she was using the meetings as opportunities to hear community feedback.

The presentation by NOLA-PS leadership to the community noted Plessy -- affectionately referred to as “The Little Red Schoolhouse” -- has a capacity issue, with enrollment of nearly 400 students crowded on a site of less than an acre.

Community members, including parents, pointed out that they chose Plessy because of its location, and that factors such as enrollment and facility size do not account for student experience.

“Almost all of us that chose Plessy chose it because it was here in the French Quarter,” said Chris Olsen, a parent of two Plessy students and a French Quarter business owner. “We want our kids to be able to walk down the street to Preservation Hall and get to see all the musicians and artists and stuff on Royal Street. Additionally, there’s a lot of activism coming from people who live and work in the French Quarter as well, even if they’re not associated with the school.”

Olsen said the French Quarter exposes students to significant historical learning opportunities, and that the school makes use of nearby Cabrini Park for open green space.

“The school here is really part of what defines the French Quarter as a neighborhood,” he said.

Students will be relocated for at least one school year, with a $3.5 million capital improvement project planned for the 2023-24 school year. But the district said around $11 million in spending would be necessary to get Plessy where it would need to be to remain in the French Quarter.

“Those are board standards and guidelines that were set, so that would be a decision for the Orleans Parish School Board to make,” Williams said when asked if exceptions could be made.

For now, parents and school leadership are in limbo, as far as the long-term future of the school.

“I understand why the district has these guiding principles, sort of what we should be looking for in schools. I also agree that there are exceptions to every rule,” said Meghan Raychaudhuri, CEO of Homer Plessy Community Schools, which also operates a middle school a few blocks away on St. Philip Street in Treme.

“We’re really pleased that there is a short-term solution that’s going to get this building water-tight. But we are optimistic and hopeful that the district and our city and our community can come together to solve this longer-term, $11 million problem.”

Plessy has been under NOLA-PS’s microscope for about two years, with the school up for relocation in February 2022. An online petition started by Olsen gathered more than 3,000 signatures in opposition.

A number of speakers at Monday’s meeting pointed out the historic significance of Plessy’s campus in the heart of the French Quarter. The building formerly housed McDonogh 15 Elementary School.

“This is still a living, authentic neighborhood. It’s a community,” said Kyran Pittman, a French Quarter tour guide. “It’s not just a destination for visitors and accommodations and entertainment. It’s all of those things, and we’re glad it is and we’re happy to welcome people here for that. But we also want to point out that it is not just a theme park.”

Pittman said the school is a highlight on her tour, as well as the tours given by a number of French Quarter guides.

“It’s always been a community where children are educated, and this is part of that tradition,” she said.

The next meeting on the future of Homer Plessy Community School will be held Tuesday (March 14) at 5 p.m. You can access the meeting virtually here.

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