Marine Corps Influenced Charter High School in Algiers Comes to Life

3 January 2014

As the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy moves into its new building for the Spring Semester, NOLA.com highlights the renovation and new construction of the school, which was designed and built by Woodward Design+Build.

Marine Corps Influenced Charter High School in Algiers Comes to Life

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

3 January 2014

Paul Purpura, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Confronted with moving a 360-student high school to a new campus during the holiday break, retired Marine Corps Col. Bill Davis said he likened the monumental task as military logisticians do in moving scores of troops and tons of their gear from ships to shore.

“Marines are expeditionary by nature,” said Davis, commandant of the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy in Algiers. “So when the building was ready, we moved the school. It’s not very different from an amphibious landing plan.”

About 2 1/2 years after the school opened, about 10 months after construction began and less than three weeks after they began the move from leased space in a former Navy hospital, the students at the state charter high school begin classes Wednesday (Jan. 8) in their newly built, $17 million campus at Federal City.

The move culminates years of planning and a complex financing package to pay for a campus that combines new construction with century-old facilities the Navy built in the years after it opened the U.S. Naval Station in 1901 along the Mississippi River’s west bank.

The base was closed in 2011, as the Naval Support Activity. It’s being redeveloped as the Federal City, envisioned to be a mixed-use community anchored by the Marine Corps Support Facility New Orleans, home to the national headquarters for the Marine Corps Reserve.

The concept for a Type 2 charter high school dates back to the late 1990s, when a Marine Corps-led review of military demographics in the region bore out the notion that service members did not savor duty in the New Orleans area, in part because of a perception that their children could not get a good public education. The initial focus was on an elementary school, which led to the creation of Belle Chasse Academy, at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base.

Then, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Paul Vallas, who at the time was superintendent of the Recovery School District, conceived of niche charter schools in the city. One of them was a military-themed Type 2 charter high, similar to one Vallas started in Chicago and one which could accept students from across the region, said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Mize, who helped develop NOMMA in connection with his role as spearheading the Federal City.

As initially envisioned, the Navy base was to be redeveloped into a community that included residential areas, a commercial district and schools within walking distance, Mize said. While the original Federal City master plan appears to have been discarded by the project’s current leadership, NOMMA still fits with the concept. “It’s something that makes it more attractive, something that makes it more sustainable for the long haul,” Mize said of NOMMA’s effect on Federal City.

NOMMA is the first Federal City tenant to use federal historic tax credits since the U.S. Interior Department designated the shuttered Navy base as the U.S. Naval Station Algiers Historic District in recent weeks. The designation means that developers who are interested in renovating the old Navy buildings that were built between 1901 and World War II, can seek the federal tax credits.

“Now it makes it much more viable to renovate some of the places,” Mize said. “It is something that’s very positive for Federal City, and something we always anticipated would be one of our benefits.”

NOMMA gets the credit for making it happen. “We’re the trail blazers,” Davis said. “The school construction project was the catalyst for seeking the nomination as a federal historic district, and we’re the first beneficiary of that designation.”

The number of structures in the historic district was not immediately available, but it generally includes all the old brick buildings and three homes the Navy built for officers in 1907, said Eddie Boettner, chief administrative officer at HRI Properties, the New Orleans firm that’s part of the Federal City master redevelopment team, HRI-ECC.

“It’s going to mean that the historic structures within that district would be eligible for federal historic restoration tax credits, as long as they’re deemed to be rehabilitatable,” Boettner said. The developers worked with Davis to get the designation.

“It’s a phenomenal school,” Boettner said. “They did a phenomenal job.”

Mize said that the federal historic tax credits were only a portion of the school’s complex financing package. School officials closed on the federal historic tax credits in December, mixing them with state historic tax credits and new market tax credits they obtained in 2012 that together helped stretch out the education bonds and other funding sources.

“It’s been a long, tortuous path to get the money to build the school,” Mize said. “It’s taken years and years.”

Construction on the 71,000-square-foot school, which includes renovated historic spaces and a new building, cost $14 million. The board paid $1.2 million to lease the buildings and grounds through 2083, because the Algiers Development District owns it and the Federal City site. Factoring in other fees and costs, the school’s price tag to about $17 million.

“We’re excited, obviously,” said retired Marine Corps Col. Terry Ebberts, New Orleans’ former homeland security director who serves as NOMMA’s board chairman. “This has been a long journey, going back to Dr. Vallas asking us to form a board and take a run at it, through the challenges of obtaining a Type 2 charter, which is not easy, and basically starting with no students, no money, no curriculum, and watching it grow to what next year will be a four-year high school. It’s a national concept I think will prove out to be a pace-setting school.”

The Marine Corps has backed the school, largely through the $1.2 million in uniforms it has provided to the students who are called “cadets,” and through the cadre of former Marine officers and non-commissioned officers who work with the faculty. Although participation in Marine Corps Junior ROTC is required of students, the school’s leaders stress it is a typical college preparatory high school, not a gateway to military service.

“We’re not recruiting Marines, but we’re trying to ensure that everybody who passes through that school is ready to excel in the future,” said Ebbert, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He added, however, that he foresees some cadets will become military officers someday, through ROTC college scholarships.

The Marine Corps is so integral to the school’s identity that it even affected its street address. As originally designed, the campus was to front Heermann Street, named for Navy surgeon Lewis Heermann, a figure of the First Barbary War in the early 1800s. Davis said they flipped the footprint over so that the campus would front O’Bannon Street, named for Marine Corps 1st Lt. Presley O’Bannon, whose exploits in First Barbary War led to the line in the Marines’ Hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli.”

On one flank at the campus is the Navy’s Building 16, designed in the Romanesque Revival style and completed in 1907 as administrative and warehouse space. The Navy’s Supervisor of Shipbuilding Gulf Coast office was located there until its staff evacuated for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Like many Navy operations in New Orleans at the time, that staff never returned, because the base was closing anyway. Building 16 has been renovated into classes, retaining many of its original architectural details.

On the other flank is the Navy’s Building 71, a Colonial Revival style structure completed in 1918 and expanded in 1942. Gantry crane beams, used when the base was a Navy repair yard, were retained in the renovation. The building was last used as a Navy Exchange warehouse. It has been converted for use as the cafeteria and freshmen classes.

Both are joined by a newly built, 27,000-square-foot facility that includes classes and administrative spaces, all linked with modern fiber optics cable, said NOMMA Principal Susan Garcia. “Even though they are historic buildings, the architects and the construction crews did a great job of adapting them,” she said.

NOMMA opened with a freshman class 21/2 years ago, occupying leased space at the former Murray Henderson Elementary School campus in Algiers before moving to the former Navy hospital inside the Marine Corps Support Facility New Orleans for the current school year. A class has been added each year, meaning a senior class will be added in the 2014-15 school year.

Under its charter, 20 percent of enrollment is reserved for children of military parents, while the balance is opened to students from across the New Orleans area, including St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, Garcia said. The school draws heavily from the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, while about 150 students live in New Orleans, she said. The current enrollment is 360 students, but the campus is built to accommodate 750 students, the maximum enrollment under its charter.

During the holiday break, school and Marine staff, students, contract help and even Davis’ wife and two sons joined forces to move everything from the kitchen, to the library to classroom desks from the temporary site inside the adjacent Marine Corps Support Facility New Orleans to the school’s permanent home, across Heermann Street. A dedication ceremony is planned for next month.

The holiday break was to end Monday, but school officials pushed the date back to Wednesday to give teachers and staff two more days to clean and prepare for the students’ return, Davis said. The school kitchen, which was moved beginning after students had their last meal on Dec. 19, underwent final health inspections Friday.

The classrooms and kitchen will be ready Wednesday, Davis said, because “educating the cadets” is the school’s primary mission. The library, where books were stacked on the floor, still lacks shelving.

Other aspects won’t be ready, such as the library, where books were still stacked on the floor. “We’ll be working on that for the next couple of months,” Davis said.

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