Building a Foundation for Learning
A look at how renovations and new projects at local schools are contributing to growth and success of education in the city.
BY KEITH LORIA
The late Fr. Harry Tompson spent much of his life as an education champion and always preached that New Orleans’ future rested on “the hearts and minds of our children.” He started The Good Shepherd School 17 years ago to give an opportunity to children who would otherwise not have one and make a positive impact on the city.
Earlier this year, Ryan Gootee General Contractors, L.L.C. (RGGC) broke ground on a new Good Shepherd School, located downtown on Baronne Street, at a new location in Gentilly. Currently the school serves one class per grade while the new building will serve two classes for grades Pre-K4 through seventh grade.
“The new building will allow the school to double its enrollment and will have enough ground space for outside activities with the possibility of future expansions,” says Ryan Gootee, president and CEO of the Metairie-based company. “The building will be a two-story slab on grade, rigid steel structure with a two-story atrium. Additionally, a full-service kitchen and dining room will occupy a part of the first floor.”
By next school year, the project will offer upwards of 280 children a chance to receive an education in an atmosphere that lends support and encourages personal growth.
“An educated citizenry is the backbone of innovation and offers the greatest chance of influencing the future of New Orleans,” Gootee says.
School-related projects comprise more than 35 percent of the firm’s portfolio. For example, when Christian Brothers School folded into St. Anthony of Padua School on Canal Street, RGGC renovated two existing buildings with interior and exterior upgrades, as well as added playground and parking lot improvements.
It also recently designed Newman Green Trees, a facility created as “a warm and welcoming village” for early education, which includes 12 classrooms, indoor and outdoor play areas, and flexible spaces for teaching and learning.
“The entire school system, both public and private, has dramatically advanced since 2005. Just as a good work atmosphere in the office space has proven to raise productivity and improve the work product, the same has been demonstrated in the classroom setting,” Gootee says. “With so many schools being completely rebuilt or renovated following Katrina, educational innovations have been incorporated not only into the classroom structure, but also in the technological advances that are available today.”
The quality of construction, the organization of spaces and the integration of state-of-the-art technologies has raised the bar as an example of what is possible in school design regionally, and this has fostered elevated expectations reflected in student performance in both academics and community life.
Michael Lachin, AIA, president of Lachin Architects, APC in New Orleans, notes the office has always engaged in a variety of educational projects in most of the parishes in the metro New Orleans area, including working on building repairs, classroom additions, entirely new schools and a new administrative complex for the St. Tammany Parish School Board.
“Educational facilities since Katrina have dominated our design portfolio and we continue to be passionate about improving our design expertise to achieve the best possible outcomes,” he says. “Our design philosophy has always been primarily focused on the students’ learning experience and what we as architects can provide to the best learning environment while being mindful of how these environments fit into the fabric of the community.”
Built on an undeveloped, donated site along Paris Road, the school includes 44 classrooms, three computer labs, a music room, an art lab, a resource center/library, a full-service kitchen and cafetorium, plus a gymnasium.
The “figure eight” configuration of the building footprint allows for access to all spaces within the school without having to exit the building—a feature of considerable benefit during inclement weather that also improves security.
“The school was designed with all flood-resistant materials up to 10 feet high on one level to facilitate a quick recovery in the event of another flood,” Lachin says. “Critical mechanical and electrical systems were installed on raised mezzanines 15 feet off the first-floor level located strategically throughout the building, well protected from future floods.”
The project also included considerable site work with parking for more than 300 cars, and an extensive sub-surface storm water retention system to manage rain water run-off.
The firm also recently worked on the Langston Hughes Elementary School in New Orleans, the first “Quick Start” school to finish on time and within budget. It holds the distinction of being the first LEED-certified new school in the state.
“The long, narrow urban neighborhood site required careful organization of spaces and coordination with bus and parent traffic patterns,” Lachin says. “The school features a central courtyard with an ‘Edible Schoolyard’ as a teaching tool that allows students to grow and harvest their own food.”
Brian Faucheux, principal with Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects, is proud that his firm has had the opportunity to design several of the new school projects in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter High School in the Lower Ninth Ward and Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary in Gentilly.
“Our work on these new school projects has been tremendously important to our architectural firm—first, as a representation of our continuing efforts to help rebuild our city since Katrina, as well as expanding our business in the growing educational sector,” he says. “It is rare that a large metropolitan city would have the opportunity to completely rebuild its public school facilities’ infrastructure as has been accomplished in New Orleans over the past several years. This opportunity has been one of the most important ‘silver linings’ to come out of the Katrina disaster.”
Lachin Architects, APC’s latest work, the Arlene Meraux Elementary School in Chalmette, was designed to accommodate the expanding population base for kindergarten through fifth grade levels.
With the vast financial assistance provided through FEMA, the city’s students can now learn and develop in new, state-of-the-art school environments that support current 21st Century School learning concepts.
The modern, colorful, three-story school design of the 140,000-square-foot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School includes classrooms, science labs, a gymnasium, 450-seat theater and library/media center for grades K-12. The design incorporates many sustainable, energy-saving strategies and will achieve its goal of LEED Silver certification through the U.S. Green Building Council.
Designed for 750 students, the state-of-the-art facility is a catalyst for continued residential development and a symbol of the rebirth of the Katrina-devastated Lower Ninth Ward community.
“A successful school design leaves a positive impact on its local community, a contributor to the built solution, and its users—teachers and students—by creating a unique, teaching environment in a facility appropriately suited to its neighborhood,” Faucheux says. “It’s through participation in this process that it is no surprise that the Gentilly community has embraced its new educational neighbor.”
Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects also recently completed the 228,000-square-foot McDonogh 35 Senior High School, the 106,000-square-foot Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, and the 106,000-square-foot Pierre A. Capdau Charter School at Avery Alexander Elementary School.
Allan McDonnel, president of The McDonnel Group, Metairie, says schools are a vertical market segment the company makes a concerted effort to participate in, and that is important to its work focus. In fact, schools account for as much as 30 percent of its total annual work volume per year.
“The learning environment is greatly enhanced, contributing to the growth and success of the education industry,” he says. “The atmosphere and technology incorporated into the current designs have augmented the area’s qualifications.”
For example, the firm recently completed two new schools for the Louisiana RSD—the Ernest “Dutch” Morial School and the Ray Abrams School, positioned approximately one mile from each other in New Orleans East. Each school is a three-story, 139,406-square-foot building with the capacity to accommodate 1,000 students in pre-K through eighth grade.
The new schools were designed to LEED Silver (pending) specifications by Waggonner & Ball Architects and include special education classrooms, science classrooms and labs, media centers, cafeteria and dining facilities, a commercial kitchen, a gymnasium/auditorium with concessions and a locker room, art and music rooms with flexible performance spaces and office space for administrative and student support services.
“These schools incorporated a tremendous amount of masonry. These are new schools designed to a highly sophisticated standard and incorporated into low- to moderate-income surroundings,” McDonnel says. “New buildings in an outdated area boost morale of the local population. Parents knowing children have a new environment creates a more positive perspective and the children are more receptive to learning and respect the environment more.”