Lack of Students, Donors Closes New Orleans School

The Bishop Perry Middle School, which helps poor black boys in New Orleans, is closing after Hurricane Katrina displaced many of its students and donors.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

It's been almost a year since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Massive flooding in New Orleans wiped out entire neighborhoods there and scattered residents across the country. Those in the city are still coping with the destruction and working hard to put back together some semblance of a normal life.

For kids, that means going back to school. Public schools are scrambling to register students and to hire new staff. At the same time, a small Catholic school with a big history is packing up and closing its doors. Eve Troeh reports.

EVE TROEH reporting:

You'll find Bishop Perry Middle School in an unremarkable beige brick building. It's surrounded by beautiful historic homes. But only a small plaque in the hall notes its history: New Orleans school first school for black children was built on this site.

During a break in summer classes, 12-year-old Alquon Crespo(ph) reads from the will of Marie Couvent, the freed slave who left her estate to found that school in 1848.

Mr. ALQUON CRESPO (Bishop Perry Middle School student): (Reading) I bequeath and order that my land at the corner of Dauphine and Touro be dedicated and used in perpetuity for the establishment of a free school for the colored orphans of the faubourg Marigny. Also, I declare that said lands and buildings shall never be sold under any pretext whatsoever.

TROEH: Several schools have opened and closed on the site since then, but Bishop Perry would be the last. Hurricane Katrina displaced many of its 60 students as well as local donors. The school has raised more than $150,000, mostly from out-of-towners. But the annual operating budget is more than half a million dollars.

Father David Theroux started Bishop Perry in 1994. He says it spends three times what New Orleans public schools spend per student.

Mr. DAVID THEROUX (Principal, Bishop Perry Middle School): What's the cost to society of these young men getting into trouble, being in prison and all the rest as opposed to paying somebody now to getting an education and getting them to succeed in high school.

TROEH: At Bishop Perry, students have been going to classes from 8:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening. Class sizes are small and the school stays open late for sports and computer time. Father Theroux chose to make this school for grades five through eight after learning that those years are critical for at-risk boys.

Keyjuan Carmoosh(ph) has just finished seventh grade. He came to Bishop Perry after public school, where he got good grades but also got into trouble.

Mr. KEYJUAN CARMOOSH (Student, Bishop Perry Middle School): When you go to a school like Bishop Perry, it helps you get ready for high school. You will be more mature. Once you leave after eighth grade you already know what you have to do and you'll become a better person.

TROEH: Keyjuan would've graduated in 2007. He was hoping for a scholarship to an elite private school. Now the school's leftover funds will pay for Keyjuan to attend another, more traditional Catholic middle school.

Father Theroux will be site to help, but he worries about his boys.

Mr. THEROUX: Many of these young boys are not going to make it in the schools they are going to. I know that. They need schools who have the time to deal with them, deal with their behaviors. You know, it's not going to be long before they display those problems of anger and fighting. And they're going to be out back in the public school system.

TROEH: For Theroux, the school's closing means the end of a successful model for educating poor, black students. New Orleans historian Keith Weldon Medley says it also ends a tradition of affordable Catholic education on this site.

Mr. KEITH WELDON MEDLEY (Author; New Orleans Historian): This is a refuge for people who wanted to get an education but were not rich enough to send their children to the private schools.

TROEH: Medley says the archdiocese has a responsibility to carry out the wishes of the school's founder.

Mr. MEDLEY: This woman wanted her land to be used for education of people of color. I would hope that they were be sensitive to the history of African-Americans in this city and to the future of African-Americans in this city. And this school is a very integral part of that.

TROEH: He says if a former slave could find a way to endow the school in the 1840s, surely there must be a way to keep it going now. But Bishop Perry Middle School is scheduled to close today.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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