Encore Academy First Charter School In New Orleans To Buy, Renovate And Move Into Its Own Building

Oct 7, 2015

When a new charter school opens, the school leaders have lots of responsibilities. Hiring the right team. Recruiting students. And, in some cases, finding a permanent home.

Recently, Encore Academy became the first charter school in New Orleans to buy, renovate and move into its own building: the former John A. Shaw Elementary in the St. Roch neighborhood.

After months of construction and a weekend of frantic unpacking, the new Encore Academy campus is open. At an open house, families peer into bright, spacious classrooms. Each has a shock of color: green, purple or gold.

Neighbors come by, too. Like a woman who introduces herself as Gloria and says she's lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. For most of that time, this building housed Shaw Elementary School.

"All of my kids went here," Gloria says. "All of them. They were late every day, and I'm across the street," she laughs.

She watched the building sit vacant after Hurricane Katrina, and neighborhood kids travel far away for school.

"Them children was going all over, catching the bus at 6 in the morning and it's too dangerous," she says. "So we needed it. I'm so glad it came back as a school and I love the improvements."

There's a chance it might've been something else. Shaw was one of the school board's surplus properties — buildings it doesn't need anymore. The board can sell those to private developers. The former NOCCA building, for example, became condos. But charter schools get first dibs before the buildings go up for public auction.

Terri Smith is Encore's founder and school leader.

"When walked in, I was in here for five minutes and I knew this was the right space for us," she says.

Encore had been open a few years but didn't have a permanent home. It had shared a building with another school Uptown. It tried to take over that space but got passed up for an established charter network. So Smith toured surplus schools, empty warehouses, even an old dry cleaner until she found the right fit.

"You could see the terrazzo floors were still there," she says. "The Art Deco railings. And then to walk into that floor and see all that space and imagine how you could turn that into wonderfully large and colorful classrooms for kindergarten and pre-k. I just knew that was it."

Encore paid $135,000 for the building. But Smith's vision still had to wait. She knew it made more financial sense to renovate the building — storm-damaged but structurally sound. But raising money proved tough.

"Everybody thought it was a great idea and a lot of local banks said yeah, we want to talk to you about that. But nobody was willing to take the risk. If you don't have a history of academic success and enrollment success, organizations really don't want to put $7 million into a project."

So Encore sold the building to Charter School Development Corps, based in Washington, DC. It's a national non-profit that finances school facilities. Encore currently leases the building from the non-profit, but hopes to buy it back. Construction started in April and students moved in last week.

"Families that had signed on with us way back in the spring of 2012, when they came through the building and the tears, the tears were shared by everybody. And they were tears of joy, for sure."

Not all charters have to find their own space like Encore did. Most schools are assigned a building by the state. It's only brand new charters under the local school board that have to do their own real estate deals.

Terri Smith has some advice about that. "I would tell them to hire their own project manager," she says. "Because you cannot run a school and be a project manager. It's just too, too hard."

That lesson could come in handy soon. Two other charters — Homer A. Plessy and Lycée Français — bought empty school buildings this fall.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Minstries and Entergy Corporation.