Closing Costs: The Last Day At Lagniappe Academies

May 18, 2015

 

Jen Pike-Vassell walks first grader Bre'Yelle to class on the last day at Lagniappe Academies.
Credit Mallory Falk / WWNO

Our series "Closing Costs" follows three New Orleans schools who lost their charters.

At Lagniappe Academies, some administrators tried to hide a lack of services for students with disabilities. The state and Recovery School District chose to close the school, which is a cluster of mobile classrooms in Tremé, rather than find a new operator.

The last day starts off in the cafeteria. Students perform the school chants and cheers one last time.

Pop songs alternate with the chants. Students dance, some with carefully choreographed dance routines.

Lagniappe's last day was scheduled for June 4. But shutting down a school can be expensive and time-intensive. Five years ago, Lagniappe set up trailers on a parking lot. When their lease is up next month, everything has to be gone. So it's one last day of celebration before that process begins.

Roy Yost, the school's operation manager, is also the party's emcee. He keeps announcing one last song. Then another. And another. It's like as long as everyone's here, singing and chanting, the school can stay open. Finally Dean of Students Rodney Brown leads a last song, about one of Lagniappe's main values: hard work.

“If I go to another school I'm not singing this song,” Brown says. “I'm retiring it. It's a Lagniappe song.”

The students cheer and clap, then line up with their teachers. Jen Pike-Vassell leads her first graders back to class.

Lagniappe was small school, serving kindergarten through fourth grade. Above average, in a system with many low-performing schools. Lots of students came from around the neighborhood, Tremé.

But a state investigation claimed the school wasn't providing services for students with disabilities. And when officials came to investigate, some administrators tried to cover it up.

Many students don't fully understand why their school's closing.

Pike-Vassell's first graders have written and made art about the closure. On this last day, she invites them to share what's on their minds. One by one, they come to the front of the class.

“I don't want the school close down because this is the best school ever, and people gonna miss this school,” says one student.

“Even though the school closing down, we're still gonna be one team and one family and we're still gonna be LANO,” say another.

A third student lists the friends he'll miss.

The Lagniappe Academies dance team puts on a final performance.
Credit Mallory Falk / WWNO

Their teacher has been through this before. Pike-Vassell taught for nine years at a charter school in Harlem. It got shut down for low test scores. In some ways, she says, this is harder. The school wasn't failing academically. It could've been saved, with new leadership.

“What about coming in and interviewing the people who are here?” she asks.
“And saying what can we do for you all? What are your constructive ideas? What are the families constructive ideas of how we can save this place? No one ever tried. No one ever gave us that opportunity.”

Now, she says, 180 kids will be displaced. She's thought about how to express this to first graders.

“It's maybe a good life lesson of there aren't always answers for things in life,” she says. “So this is one of those things unfortunately at six or seven years old that I have to tell you hey, in life there aren't always answers.

First grade friends Janiya and Bre'Yelle have been dreading the last day of school. Both had trouble sleeping the night before.

“I just kept moving around and my dad had to move all them pillows off of me. I was sweating. I was crying in my sleep. I had a headache,” says Janiya.

Bre'Yelle says when she woke up, “I was nervous. I started to sweat when I was brushing my teeth. And when I got into the car I was like...” She shakes her body, shivering.

Janiya says she learned a lot this year – about handwriting and sportsmanship and ancient Maya civilization. She points to a bulletin board with pictures of each student. Heads titled, hands folded on the desk.

“Look on the board,” Janiya says. “You see me having a lot of joy on my face. And look all the other super scholars on the board.”

You hear in her voice complete buy-in, adopting the language of charter reform.

The closes friends will be split up next year. Both at charters in other parts of the city. There will be one less elementary school in Tremé. 

The last day is filled with singing, dancing and Lagniappe chants.
Credit Mallory Falk / WWNO

  Operations Manager Roy Yost grew up down in the street, in the Iberville Projects. It meant a lot to him to work in the neighborhood.

“Born and raised there,” he says. “Went to college, went out of state and worked and now I'm back in my home. Right across the street from where I grew up at. In the hood. You know. And it gave me pride to be able to give back to the kids. What you've given back, the school board and RSD took it away. And to me that's not fair.”

As Yost continues, he's overcome with emotion.

“I let the kids know, represent where you come from. Lagniappe.” Yost trails off, unable to finish the sentence. He steps into the hall and takes a minute to compose himself. When he comes back, he says he feels betrayed. It was the school's leaders who messed up. Not the kids. Not the teachers.

“Anybody that works in the school system should learn from us,” he says. “Your job is not guaranteed. You know, we can move onto another school. Will the same thing happen again?”

As the day goes on, things get looser. Kids bounce basketballs and play hand games outside. Parents and grandparents arrive. Jeannetta Dean is here to pick up her 4th grader, Angel.

“I wasn't ready to take her out of here,” Dean says. “She was doing too well here. 'Cause she was really learning! Yes. This is a good school. I recommend any parent to send them here.”

As the final day wraps up, a first grader asks Pike-Vassell if there's any homework that night. She breaks down.

“I guess nothing really got me this emotional today, to this point, 'til right now. Because to tell him there's no more homework ever. You know. So it's just a hard thing.”

She says some students have been asking for summer work packets.

“And maybe it's not really clicking that you know this is their last day and the next time they see the school it might just be a bulldozed over parking lot,” she says.

At dismissal time, her students ask to do a final final chant. And then a group hug.

“I wanna say one last thing,” Pike-Vassell says. “Thank you for a great year this year. I love you. I care about you. You have my number. Please call me if you want to call me. Be safe. We're one team one family. Let's hear it. One team, one family!”

The students walk down the hall, to the bus line. They carry whatever's left in their desks: pencils, stray sheets of construction paper with their classmates' phone numbers. They board the buses and wave – one last time – from open windows.

The buses pull away. Left behind: bleary eyed teachers, and a set of trailers to be dismantled.