[StBernard] Chalmette High will undergo $50 million expansion

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Feb 5 10:47:33 EST 2008

Chalmette High will undergo $50 million expansion
Ninth-graders get their own building
Monday, February 04, 2008
By Paul Rioux
St. Bernard bureau
When Chalmette High School reopened less than three months after Hurricane
Katrina, it was a makeshift campus of trailers and generators. A canvas tent
served as a cafeteria, and students had to duck to avoid temporary ductwork
made of plastic sheeting dangling in the hallways of the school's unflooded
second floor.

A little more than two years later, the school is poised for a $50 million
expansion that Chalmette High will undergo $50 million expansion will
include a 25-classroom addition, an athletic field house, a pool and a
cultural arts center featuring a 400-seat auditorium complete with orchestra

"We've come a long way," said St. Bernard Parish schools Superintendent
Doris Voitier, adding that the addition will be one of the finest public
school facilities in the state.

"In those darkest days right after Katrina, I thought: There has to be an
opportunity down the road to make things better than they were before the
storm," she said. "Well, this is it."

Located on the site of the demolished Lacoste Elementary School across busy
Judge Perez Drive from the high school, the addition will be linked to the
existing building by a sweeping brick-and-glass skywalk.

Plans for the project, which is scheduled to be put out for bids in a few
weeks and completed by August 2009, include a three-story classroom building
for ninth-graders and an attached cafeteria.

Each floor will be self-contained, with its own science and computer labs.
Voitier said this will create smaller "neighborhoods" of about 100 students,
reducing class sizes and enabling teachers to provide more one-on-one

"We want to give more support to our ninth-graders, because they are in the
make-or-break year of high school," she said. "If you make it past ninth
grade, the chances that you will drop out go down dramatically."

The field house will include a gym, an exercise center and a venue for
wrestling matches. The cultural arts center will house music rooms, a dance
studio and a library in addition to the auditorium.

"This is a first-class facility and a first-class educational program that
will be a beacon of hope for the entire community," Voitier said. "It's
going to be very impressive."

Voitier said she is particularly proud that the project is being financed
without a single penny of local tax revenue.

She said the estimated cost of $48 million to $50 million will be covered by
a mix of insurance settlements, FEMA reimbursements and donations from local
charities and businesses.

"We've been wheeling and dealing to make this a reality," she said.

In one example of creative financing, the school system is renovating the
old Borgnemouth School in Violet to serve as the district's vehicle
maintenance facility. It will replace a storm-damaged building in Arabi that
won't be rebuilt, freeing up about $10 million in FEMA money that can be
used for the high school addition, Voitier said.

She said the school district's relationship with FEMA has "vastly improved"
since the days shortly after Katrina when she grew frustrated by the pace of
federal recovery aid and took out a $17.8 million loan to buy portable

"We are working in a true partnership now. We have laid out a plan of where
we want to go, and they have bought into it and are helping us get there,"
said Voitier, who received the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in
Courage Award last year for spearheading the school system's widely heralded

John Connolly, FEMA's public assistance chief for Louisiana, said he views
the agency's relationship with St. Bernard schools as a model he wants to
replicate with other government entities seeking recovery aid.

"We have gone from maybe needing joint therapy to sharing a joint
responsibility for rebuilding St. Bernard's schools," he said. "Doris has
very strong convictions and may not always like the answer you give her, but
she is willing to work with that answer to find a solution."

Connolly said FEMA has disbursed about $120 million of the $295 million it
has obligated to repair storm damage to St. Bernard schools.

Five of the 14 schools in operation before Katrina have reopened and three
more are scheduled to go back on line by August.

Joseph Davies Elementary in Meraux and W. Smith Elementary in Violet are
being rebuilt, and the former St. Bernard High School is being renovated to
serve as a middle school.

The school district's enrollment stands at 4,330, nearly half the
pre-Katrina figure of 8,800.

. . . . . . .

Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux at timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3321.

An artist's rendering of the new school to be built in St. Bernard Parish
features a brick and glass skywalk going over East Judge Perez Drive in

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