The historic building that's often referred to as "The Little Red Schoolhouse," may soon dismiss classes permanently, despite protests from many parents and neighbors.
- by Frank Perez
Generations of children have attended classes in the schoolhouse at 721 St. Philip Street – running in the wrought iron-fenced yard, peering out the windows at French Quarter rooftops and streaming down the steps laughing in mid-afternoon, homework assignments in hand.
But that could soon change. The Plessy Community School, formerly McDonough 15, is considering a move out of the French Quarter.
Plessy moved into the iconic building (which dates to 1932) in 2017. Now, after just four years, the Plessy Community School is considering relocating to the Bywater. Such a move would be a dramatic manifestation of a disturbing trend – the erosion of the French Quarter as a genuine community. Currently, Plessy is the last remaining school in the city’s flagship neighborhood.
Last year the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) announced that in 2022 the Arise Academy would be vacating the school-building it occupies at 3819 St Claude Avenue and that OPSB would be taking applications from existing charter schools that want to relocate.
Plessy officials say their current building needs major repairs and renovations. When asked for a list of what repairs are needed, Plessy CEO Meghan Raychaudhuri could not produce any specifics and said a report would be issued next month. Inexplicably, she did, however, throw out a figure of $30 million to cover the cost of the repairs.
When asked why the school chose to move into its current location if the building was so damaged, Raychaudhuri deflected the question citing changes in funding. Currently, the Orleans Parish School Board leases school buildings it owns rent free to charter schools with the schools being responsible for property taxes and maintenance.
Parents of students at Plessy and French Quarter residents are concerned about the potential move for a variety of reasons. Parents point to the secrecy and lack of communication on the part of the Plessy Board throughout the process and Quarter residents wonder what will become of the historic building.
Chris Olsen, who lives in the Quarter and has two children enrolled at Plessy, learned of the potential move from a Plessy board member and immediately launched an on-line petition opposing the move. The petition garnered over 1,200 signatures within a matter of days. In the petition post, Olsen writes, “only some teachers have been notified, and parents of Plessy students have not been asked for opinion, comment, or even notified of the proposal.”
According to Olsen, “In a December Board meeting agenda, this proposal was cryptically referred to as ‘Building Opportunities’. In the February Plessy School Board meeting, this proposal was discussed, but was not included as an agenda item. The Board meeting minutes have not been published to the Plessy Website since October 2020. The next board meeting will come after the proposal for the building must be submitted, leaving no time for comment or discussion.”
Residents and French Quarter advocates are worried the school building may suffer the same fate as the former Cathedral School (at the corner of Dumaine and Dauphine streets). That building was converted into high-end luxury apartments after the school closed a few years ago. The Plessy School building is in the heart of the Quarter and occupies some of the most valuable real estate in the neighborhood. One can imagine developers salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on what locals often call the “Little Red Schoolhouse.”
French Quarter advocates are rightly worried. Recently elected City Councilperson Freddie King, whose district includes the French Quarter – and whom OPSB member J.C. Romero endorsed –openly campaigned on the idea of repealing the current ban on short-term rentals in the Quarter. If the repeal were to pass, it would open the possibility of converting the historic school to a hive of vacation rentals. That would be a devastating blow to the neighborhood’s already frayed residential fabric.
Perhaps in response to Olsen’s petition, the CEO of Plessy called a public meeting which was held on Thursday, February 17, at the school. At the meeting – at which only two of eleven Plessy board members attended – Raychaudhuri told a packed room of parents, French Quarter residents, and community activists that Plessy has not yet submitted an application to relocate but is strongly considering doing so because of the cost of repairs and renovations needed at the French Quarter property.
Plessy, as well as several other charter schools are expected to submit applications to the OPSB to move to the Drew Building at 3819 St Claude Ave. in the Bywater, which currently houses the Arise Academy campus. The Arise facility will be vacated later this year. All applications must be submitted by the end of February.
The Arise Academy building is larger than the current Plessy school building, a fact that would allow the charter school to increase its enrollment and consequently its profits. This has led some to theorize that the Plessy School, which has no real investment or interest in the French Quarter as a neighborhood, is looking at the bottom line and concluded it would make more financial sense to relocate.
Plessy parents and other stakeholders point out that the Plessy Board has not considered alternative plans for fund-raising to pay for repairs, or perhaps even to buy the building.
“Plessy is now one of the most diverse schools in New Orleans, a goal specifically enacted by the founders of the school," writes parent Chris Olsen in the petition. "After years of difficulty fully integrating the school while located in the 7th ward, Plessy was moved to the French Quarter with the goal of ‘spurring growth and attracting a broader base of students.’ Now the school is looking to move out of the Quarter, without addressing that the opposite effect may likely take hold.”
Olsen goes on, “The arts-focused curriculum is especially integrated within the French Quarter. From the brass bands that greet kids at the beginning of each semester, to musical greats like Trombone Shorty and Big Freedia who have taught students and have led the annual Plessy second line, to the daily walks through the neighborhood to experience the art and culture that makes up the French Quarter—simply being located in the Quarter provides numerous benefits for student education.”
Conversely, opponents argue that the school also benefits the French Quarter by being a tangible manifestation and a reminder that the French Quarter is a community of neighbors, and neighborhoods have schools. Replacing the school with more condos or hotel rooms will do nothing to strengthen the community and only serve to reinforce the idea that the French Quarter has been surrendered to tourists.
Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) executive director Erin Holmes notes, “The loss of our school would be devastating for the neighborhood, for the residents and businesses truly enjoy having the students here. A school is the cornerstone of a viable neighborhood, which also provides value in educating our little New Orleanians (first-hand!) about the history and culture of our beautiful city. Homer Plessy is a part of our community.”
“The French Quarter needs to be preserved not just as place for tourists, but also as a true neighborhood,” says Nathan Chapman, VCPORA board president. “Neighborhoods have schools. It is vital that there be a school at that location, as there has been for over 100 years. Let’s all see how we may help Homer Plessy continue to call the French Quarter home.”
If the OPSB approves Plessy’s application, it is likely the Board will sell the old McDonogh 15 property. If it does decide to sell the building, Plessy has the right of first refusal. OPSB member J.C. Romero states, “The district's enrollment is extremely low—so low that schools are beginning to combine or charter boards are giving up their charters because they cannot financially sustain schools with low enrollment. Should Plessy move out of the French Quarter building, there won't be a school there for probably sometime as the district is rightsizing and not accepting any new charter applications for the time being.”
At the public meeting held on February 17, Plessy CEO Meghan Raychaudhuri made it abundantly clear that her allegiance is to the “long-term success of the organization.”
Not the students. Not the school. Not the neighborhood and not the community. The organization. Spoken like a true CEO.
I reached out to Raychaudhuri with follow-up questions but received no response.
In addition to being another nail in the French Quarter community’s coffin, the relocation affair also exposes the chief problem with charter schools in general – they exist to make their shareholders money. Education is incidental.
Community ties? Not even on the radar.
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Frank Perez serves as President of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and has authored four books on New Orleans history and teaches part-time at Loyola University. He is also a licensed tour-guide. He and his partner live in the French Quarter. You may contact him through his website, www.FrenchQuarterFrank.com.
At French Quarter Journal, we cover the neighborhood as a community – not a commodity.