Holy Rosary students growing into new location

At the Parents’ Club meeting announcing the decision to move Holy Rosary Academy and High School from their original Moss Street campus to the Uptown site of the former Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary, a young attendee lifted the spirits of everyone within earshot.

“One of our fourth graders came up to me and he said, ‘Sister, don’t worry; we’re going (to the new campus) with you, and we’re bringing the magic with us!’” said Holy Rosary’s principal, School Sister of Notre Dame Paulette Tiefenbrunn, recalling the touching moment that unfolded in May 2012.

Sister Paulette kept the youngster’s words close to her heart as the Archdiocese of New Orleans, assisted by faculty, staff and parents, transformed Holy Rosary’s new hub at Jena Street and Napoleon Avenue from shabby to chic.

The “magic” had to happen quickly.

In the six weeks leading up to the campus’ August 2012 debut, the archdiocese completed a major refurbishment of the school’s interior, shoring up classroom walls, installing new air-conditioning and painting hallways a bright white. The faculty pitched in by painting chain-link fencing, cleaning windows and clearing brush.

“The whole general appearance of the inside of the school was not warm and welcoming – it had purple doors, green trim, brown transoms and gray walls,” said Sister Paulette of the sight that greeted her during her initial walk-through of the building, which had been occupied by Sojourner Truth Charter School after Hurricane Katrina forced the closure of Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary.

“The white boards had been destroyed; we had plastic bottles stuck in virtually every toilet, requiring new plumbing; there was electrical work that needed to be done,” Sister Paulette said.

Students entering the building for the 2012-13 school year instantly spotted an asset of their new digs: the mid-20th century architecture of the school building allowed a lot more light into their classrooms.

“When the kids walked in, they said, ‘This is beautiful! It’s so bright!” Sister Paulette said.

Reacclimating over time
In addition to the physical adjustments, a number of mental shifts had to be made at the academy, founded in 1996 by Our Lady of the Rosary’s late pastor, Father James Tarantino, to serve elementary-age students with learning challenges such as autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, language delay and Attention Deficit Disorder. The academy and high school, the latter added in 2005, currently enroll 163 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

“We were used to the beauty of Bayou St. John (at the former campus) and City Park was very close; the track team practiced there. Our students would walk to the museum and the Sculpture Garden,” Sister Paulette recalled. “It was a difficult move because you’re leaving old friends, familiar settings, and moving into a totally new environment.”

The Holy Rosary school family adapted gracefully. The track team now runs laps in the residential neighborhood; students have use of a pocket park just two blocks away; and Audubon Park has become the go-to place for classroom picnics. The new location has also enabled Holy Rosary to offer suburban families a second morning bus pickup site.

“We had always picked up on the west bank, but now we have a Metairie pickup as well,” Sister Paulette said. “We can get the two (pickups) in and get them to school by 8 o’clock.”

Friends on Freret

The school’s geographical position as an anchor of the bustling Freret Street Corridor is another plus, the principal said. Holy Rosary students recently were invited to display their artwork at Rook Cafe, a nearby coffee shop, and members of the high school’s Manga Comics Club take excursions to Crescent City Comics, another Freret business.

“Freret Street welcomed us with open arms. They’re very supportive of the school,” said Sister Paulette, a frequent attendee of meetings of the Freret Street Neighborhood Association. “Whenever they have a big event we try to support them. It’s starting to feel like home because we’re starting to make meaningful connections.”

Another partnership is growing between Holy Rosary and the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart’s kitchen satellites out Holy Rosary’s hot lunch program, and students at the two schools participate in “twinning” activities. During the recent cold snap, Holy Rosary students returning from the Tulane University production of “The Wizard of Oz” were invited to eat lunch at Sacred Heart rather than at their pre-scheduled outdoor spot in Audubon Park.

“I live in this neighborhood, but most of my teachers don’t and not a lot of the students do, so it was like starting over to build relationships with the people in your local community,” Sister Paulette said. “So far we have just been blessed with the blessings that we’ve had!”

Another school first is the mobile unit that serves as Holy Rosary’s fine arts center. Packed with instruments, including several drum sets, the center recently displayed “Blue Dog” paintings by third and fourth graders and ceramic pieces made by students under the tutelage of a neighborhood artist.

Links with Blessed Trinity
Holy Rosary occupies the site through a lease agreement with Blessed Trinity Parish, which assumed the territory of Our Lady of Lourdes after Hurricane Katrina. Although the adjacent church, built in 1924, remains shuttered, school Masses are held on First Thursdays in the gym or at Blessed Trinity Church, a short bus ride away.

“The students call Father (Thomas) Kilasara our pastor. You could not want a more welcoming parish,” Sister Paulette said, noting that four of her students made their first Communion at Blessed Trinity last year.

While the school building, erected in 1956 to replace the original 1905 Our Lady of Lourdes School, has a long to-do list that includes air-conditioning for the gym, re-caulking of windows and a new boiler, Sister Paulette said she is proud of how well her students and faculty have adapted to their new campus in less than two years. For example, to give Holy Rosary’s gardening club its first on-campus garden, physical education coach Charles Furlan built a series of raised beds for the cultivation of vegetables and herbs.

“Our teachers have taken this change of environment and run with it by trying to provide as many outside experiences as possible, and also (by) bringing people in to make this school thrive,” Sister Paulette said. “The archdiocese, along with the faculty, the staff and the parents, have worked so hard to help this place become home!”

The Parents’ Club of Holy Rosary will present its 2014 fund-raising gala, “Under the Big Top,” on April 12. For more information, call 482-7173.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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