[StBernard] Contractors finish school work just in time for the opening bell

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Aug 12 09:16:34 EDT 2008

Contractors finish school work just in time for the opening bell
New elementaries open in St. Bernard
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
By Mary Elise DeCoursey
St. Bernard bureau

Last Friday, the halls of Joseph Davies Elementary School in Meraux were
filled with the sounds of power saws and hammers. But on Monday morning, the
construction equipment was drowned out by a different sound: the laughter
and excited screams of almost 500 children.

Monday was the first day of school at Davies Elementary, one of two new
public schools in St. Bernard Parish built from scratch after Katrina
destroyed the original buildings almost three years ago. The other, Smith
Elementary in Violet, also opened on Monday. The schools are the first new
elementary school buildings to be opened in the New Orleans area
post-Katrina. A third school, St. Bernard Middle, opened Monday in the
renovated St. Bernard High School building.

Schools Superintendent Doris Voitier said the first day ran smoothly across
the parish.

"I made the rounds, and I guess the planning everyone did paid off," she
said. "Everything went just wonderfully well."

Davies is the fifth school for Chalmette fifth-grader Sarah Russell in the
past three years. She attended school in Texas after Katrina, but is happy
to be back in St. Bernard and excited about Davies. Her mother, Chrystal, is
hopeful that Sarah will settle in to the new school.

"I love it; the school is beautiful," Chrystal Russell said. "I can't
believe they got it done."

Both Davies and Smith were built in 8 1/2 months, a feat even the crews from
Gibbs Construction called "unheard of." Workers were still on-site over the
weekend, working overtime to get the schools finished for Monday.

"A job like this should take 18 months to build," said Jimmy Wehrlin with
Gibbs Construction. "But Ms. Doris (Voitier) is so persistent. . . She
pushes us, telling us 'I need my school, I need my school.' "

Both schools were fully financed by FEMA at a cost of $24 million for Davies
and $20 million for Smith, Voitier said.

The two new schools are part of a school system that is progressing steadily
three years after Katrina reduced the entire St. Bernard education system to
a single trailer complex. The St. Bernard Unified School, which housed
grades pre-kindergarten through 12th, opened just 11 weeks after the storm.

Pre-Katrina, there were about 8,000 students attending 15 schools across the
parish. The system's rebuilding plan calls for 11 schools in operation by
August 2010.

Enrollment is up to 4,300 students and the system will have eight total
schools up and operating this fall, Voitier said. She hopes that the new
schools, combined with a more stable student body, will lead to greater
improvements in the classroom.

"We're finally getting back to focusing on teaching and learning, while some
of us are still rebuilding," she said.

For Denise Pritchard, Davies' principal, the opening is also a homecoming.
Pritchard was a third-grade teacher at the school when Katrina hit, and
lived in a trailer in the school's parking lot while rebuilding her home.

"This is home. . . . I'm supposed to be here," she said. "Everyone kept
saying, 'There's no way,' but we're here."

The two new campuses have 44 classrooms each, all equipped with
state-of-the-art technology, Voitier said. There are also gyms, science labs
and libraries at each school.

"This is very exciting to have a nice new building," said Dedra Bailey,
principal at Smith Elementary. "And this is my community, so I'm really
excited about that."

The highlight of the classrooms is the Promethean board, an "interactive
whiteboard," a video screen that functions as the room's chalkboard. The
board can connect to the Internet, and allows students and teachers to
"write" on the board for math problems or writing lessons. Students can also
respond to group questions using individual remotes.

There are still some finishing touches to be put on the Davies' building,
such as a bell system. Pritchard says she will solve that problem with a
hand-held bell and "a big mouth." But the teachers and students are ready to

"The classrooms are beautiful . . . They're all unique," said fourth-grade
teacher Jennifer Carlin.

"We couldn't ask for anything more."

. . . . . . .

Mary Elise DeCoursey can be reached at mdecoursey at timespicayune.com or

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