By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
The City Council voted in March to allow Warren Easton to incorporate five empty residentially zoned lots into its campus as part of the new ninth-grade Academy, to be housed in a renovated former business college at 3026-30 Canal St. The bus plan, however, was not part of that approval.
Before bringing Warren Easton’s request to the council, District B Councilwoman Lesli Harris removed the bus circulation plan from the proposal in response to strong opposition from the Mid-City neighbors. She inserted provisos and an ordinance designed to keep the school buses away from people’s backyards and kitchen windows.
Then it was up to the city’s Department of Public Works to approve a traffic plan for Canal Street that removes buses from the side streets and the residentially zoned property. School officials do not want the students crossing Canal, according to Principal and CEO Mervin Jackson, so the ninth-graders will be dropped off on the uptown side of the major thoroughfare.
The traffic plan needs designated loading zones for both school buses and vehicles dropping off and picking up the students. Harris and her staff presented strategies for separating the two loading zones without bringing vehicles onto the residential lots, where faculty and staff will have off-street parking.
Unlike the main 110-year-old building across the street, the academy takes up only a portion of the square block and does not have the same kind of access to the side streets.
“We were hoping we could figure out a way to get both buses and carpool out on Canal,” said Elizabeth Holman, land-use director for Harris. But Public Works continued to have concerns over safety, legality and logistics.
“They wouldn’t approve any of those options for either multiple loading zones or sort of staggering it,” Holman said. “And so that meant that we had to have something go through the back.”
They chose to allow buses into the residential area behind the planned Ninth Grade Academy because they could have more oversight over buses, Holman said.
“We were able to add substantial provisos to minimize their impact,” she said. “If carpool was in the back, we would not be able to limit timing or where in the neighborhood parents can drive.”
The provisos give the buses a 35-minute window for morning drop-off and 25 minutes for afternoon pick-up. If buses are needed outside of the normal hours, they will go to Canal Street.
Other provisos prohibit school bus staging and parking on South Salcedo Street, South Gayoso Street and Cleveland Avenue and prohibit any buses outside of the designated route. The current plan has buses traveling from Canal for a half block up South Salcedo Street, turning left into the parking lot beyond the school, then exiting onto South Gayoso Street.
Other provisos require the school to provide a staff member to direct traffic during loading and unloading and a community liaison to address concerns about the buses and other issues.
The neighbors say that the provisos are not enough. “The fact that buses will now traverse these lots is worrisome to all of us — and especially me, because I’m at ground zero,” said Mary Horn, whose bedroom in her Cleveland Avenue home is about 20 feet from the planned bus area.
Although several neighbors stated after the March council meeting that they were opposed to carpool lines behind the school, Horn said they believe the vehicles would be preferable to the buses.
“To me, a better compromise would have been getting together with the neighborhood and giving us a voice in choosing the lesser of two evils,” Horn said. “And most of us agree we would have chosen a carpool line.”
Horn said that although the city has less control over the movement of private vehicles, the school can control them. She said that Morris Jeff Community School does a good job of organizing and regulating carpooling at the nearby elementary campus on South Lopez Street.
The neighbors had considered taking legal action, Horn said, but decided to try to work with Harris’ office, the Department of Public Works and the school to devise a better plan.
She emphasized that they support the highly ranked open-admissions high school and are glad it is so successful. Warren Easton was the most requested high school for incoming ninth-graders applying to New Orleans public schools through OneApp for the current school year.
The new academy will allow the school to accept 100 more students each year. And not only does it allow Warren Easton to continually admit more students, it follows a current best-practice in secondary education: Studies have shown that ninth-grade academies can ease the transition between middle school and high school and set the 14-year-olds on a more successful path.
The neighborhood is viewing Warren Easton’s success with both pride and trepidation, Horn said. “I do believe, like all my neighbors do, that they’re going to continue to grow. And I don’t really see how they’re going to do that without kind of gobbling up the neighborhood,” she said. “There’s really nothing we can do about it except put safeguards in place.”