Akili Academy Finds A New Home In An Historic, Renovated Building

Nov 1, 2013

Eve Abrams has been chronicling Akili Academy, an open enrollment charter school now in its sixth year. This week, she reports on Akili Academy’s new-to-them building, and the issue of school real estate city-wide. 

Akili Academy has always been a school of trailers, sitting in Gentilly. Until this year. The K-8th grade charter school has opened its doors in a permanent building.

The renovated building was formerly William Frantz Elementary School in the 9th Ward. It was one of some 130 New Orleans school buildings flooded after Katrina.

“So this is the old, original part of the building. And they redid it, like these are old wood floors, and they salvaged as much of the wood doors as they could.”

Julie MacFetters was a founding first grade teacher at Akili Academy. Now she’s in her third year as principal, and giving me a tour of Akili’s permanent home — half renovated, half brand-new building.

“This room over here is Ruby’s room, we call it.”

Ruby’s Room is named for Ruby Bridges. She was one of four African American girls — first graders — who integrated New Orleans public schools in 1960. It was six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Brown v. The Board of Education, which ruled separate was not equal.

When Ruby enrolled at William Frantz, scores of white families withdrew their children from the school. Ruby spent her entire first grade year alone with her teacher, in a classroom of one.

“So this is supposed to be staged somewhat as it was when she was here," says MacFetters. "A lot of people who’ve been in other new schools are like, this is so nice, because of all the original wood and the wood fixtures they’ve left. And it is really nice. I like it a lot; it makes it feel original. And then you have this really cool new space as well.”

The new space — wide, airy halls and expansive windows out to the courtyard — is attached to the old Frantz school, and includes big rooms for special education, and also a science lab, gymnasium, theater and library.

Tasha Howard’s daughter, Na’Shey, started at Akili in kindergarten and is now in the third grade. Howard says she hasn’t walked through all of the new building, but she’s gone on a tour.

“I like what I see, I just hope that Na’Shey gets to utilize some of the stuff that’s in the building — like the library they have, but they don’t have a librarian yet," she says. "So, maybe one day they’ll get a librarian where the kids can actually go in and check out books.”

Part of the reason Akili doesn’t have a librarian yet is they never had plans for a library. Akili got way more school than it bargained for. That’s because the renovated Frantz school was actually slated for another charter school. But that school was one of the lowest performing charters in the state, and their contract wasn’t renewed.

“When schools do not meet the minimum bar after several years of having the same opportunity as other schools, we have an accountability system that allows us to not extend the schools, and that allowed the facility then to open up,” says  Patrick Dobard, the Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District.

Since the 2005 flood, there’s a significant shortage of school buildings in New Orleans, and so part of what Dobard does is shift schools around so they have some sort of roof over their heads. When construction on the Frantz building was winding down, Dobard realized he needed a school to fill it.

“And that’s when I questioned well, who is in a modular that doesn’t have a long-term site, and they’re doing very well serving children, and we know they will be around a while based on their track record? And so that’s how we got to the place of Akili going into the Frantz building," says Dobard.

“It’s kind of like dominoes. And the only way that you can keep moving all the pieces is everything has to connect, and sometimes you have to wait for one piece to move in order to move another piece.”

Dobard says there are a lot of charter schools still in modular buildings because they’re waiting for a long term building to be built. Or schools are waiting for a building another school is using temporarily until their building is built.  

“And that’s just what I would call a temporary inconvenience for the long term prosperity of having wonderfully new renovated or refurbished buildings throughout the city,” he says.

The lion’s share of the renovations are financed by FEMA, as part of its $1.8 billion settlement with New Orleans public schools. The Frantz renovation cost over $24 million.

Fourth grader T’yanna Williams, from New Orleans East, has been attending Akili since kindergarten.

“I think that the other building was — I mean, it had a lot of memories back in the trailers. But I think the school, the building, is much better because we’re not in trailers no more.”

Plus, she likes that it’s historical.  

Principal MacFetters says the building’s history is an important reminder for her school. “We think about how far New Orleans schools have come, but still how far we have to go.”

MacFetters says success for all the city’s children is still the goal.