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Academy of Our Lady pointing to future

The corner of Barataria Boulevard and Westbank Expressway in Marrero looks different these days. That’s because preliminary work has begun on a new campus for the Academy of Our Lady all-girls’ high school.

With the recent FEMA approval of a $27 million recovery grant, Academy of Our Lady is on its way to begin final architectural drawings and then start the bid process on its 132,000-square-foot campus.

“What we are looking at is a school that can meet all of our girls’ needs today,” Salesian Sister Michelle Geiger, principal, said. “We are trying to build a campus where every student can explore her interests and begin exposures to skills that will be truly meaningful when they go to college.”

The 22-acre, state-of-the-art wireless campus will have seven buildings, including a separate multipurpose building and arts building; a student leadership center allowing expansion of an already strong leadership and peer ministry program; a new science lab with $500,000 worth of equipment; a 1,000-seat regulation-size gymnasium; a larger library; 35 classrooms and ample outdoor fields for soccer, softball and cheerleading. The campus is designed to accommodate between 700-800 students, said Craig Kirtland, building project manager.

Project in the making

The proposal to build a new high Catholic high school on the West Bank was launched when the archdiocese merged Archbishop Blenk and Immaculata high schools after Hurricane Katrina. Knowing a bigger campus was needed to accommodate all students as well as academic and extracurricular programs, former New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes and the Office of Catholic Schools presented the idea to Salesian Sister Maria Colombo, then-principal of the new Academy of Our Lady.

“Sister Maria shepherded this from the beginning,” Sister Michelle said. “She was instrumental in this, and she continues to help oversee the project.”

Lots of homework on design

Sister Maria, now principal at Immaculate Conception Elementary in Marrero, began securing land and sent teachers on exploratory missions to newly built high schools to look at campus configurations and best educational practices.

“Their mission was to ask, ‘What do you like and what would you change if you could do it over again?’” Kirtland said.

Preliminary plans were executed based on that wish list and have evolved into the current scheme, he said. With recent approval of the FEMA project worksheet, the architectural firm of Burgdahl and Graves, with assistance from Sizeler, Thompson and Brown, are full steam ahead with final plans, which are almost 90 percent complete, Kirtland said. Construction is to begin in 2013.

“The final design incorporates much of what the teachers envisioned as their dream school,” Kirtland said.

Financing from FEMA

The Archdiocese of New Orleans will use FEMA’s “alternate project rebuilding option” to fund the new campus. At least $27 million slated for nine other Hurricane Katrina recovery projects is included.

“Our alternate project funding option gives our applicants control to decide how they should rebuild their storm-damaged facilities in the best interest of the public,” said Andre Cadogan, FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office Deputy Director of Programs.

Jeff Entwisle, chief operating officer of the archdiocese’s Department of Financial and Administrative Services, said the project is capped at $30 million in FEMA dollars, allowing remaining money to complete other necessary projects in the archdiocese.

“We wanted to do our best to allocate the available dollars for as many projects as we could,” Entwisle said.

Because public money cannot be used for religious purposes, Academy of Our Lady will pay for its chapel, a much-used gathering spot for the community, especially during evening adoration.

“The chapel is the heart of any Catholic school,” Sister Michelle said. “We are here for evangelization and catechesis, bringing young women closer to Jesus Christ. Out of that mission, they become productive and happy adults.”

Sister Michelle and Kirtland view the chapel and entire new campus as a welcoming place that will strengthen existing relationships with the Salesian-run Archbishop Shaw High School, and its partners in the mission and Health Care Connections programs.

 “We want to be a vital part of the community,” Kirtland said.

Parents are happy and appreciative that the archdiocese is moving the project forward, Kirtland said. Homage will be paid to the history of Immaculata and Archbishop Blenk with memorabilia from both schools included on the new campus.

Sister Michelle and Kirtland see the move to new campus as an enhancement to the strong foundation already laid at its current location.

“We planted the seed here and it will grow there,” Sister Michelle said.

 “This will allow us to continue to develop our educational programs because we will have the facilities,” Kirtland said. “For the people on the West Bank in general, I’m glad that they will now have an up-to-date, modernized, fully equipped school and a place where different members of the community can gather.”

Site preparation began in October with tree clearing.

“The growth and seeing things happen is really a sign” that has generated student enthusiasm, Kirtland said.

“I’m really excited,” said freshman Sarah Martin, 14. “More students will be involved and there will be more excitement with a new school.”

 “We are so excited about the future of Academy of Our Lady,” Archdiocese of New Orleans Catholic Schools superintendent Dr. Jan Lancaster said. “It’s a wonderful day for Catholic education. “They’ve waited so long for this, and now it’s here.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion