‘Summer vacation’ a relative term at local schools

Knowing that her school’s Smart Boards were only as good as students’ ability to access them, Miriam Daniel was intrigued by an ingenious classroom accessory advertised in a school-supply magazine: special risers were available to give even the shortest of students the necessary altitude to reach around a Smart Board’s jumbo, touch-sensitive screen.

Of course, the super wide, skid-free risers cost a small fortune.

“So I showed (a picture of the riser) to my brother-in-law and he said he could build us a better one,” said Daniel, principal of St. Rita School in Harahan, marveling at the results of her relative’s promise: 11 carpeted, cabinet-grade pine risers for the school’s lower-grade classrooms, built at cost.

Brain power, sweat equity

The creative carpentry project was one of hundreds undertaken this summer during the annual rush to prepare Catholic elementary school campuses for the August influx.

While their pupils are away, school administrators, faculty and staff attend to a myriad of tasks: Handbooks are updated, events planned and cafeteria supplies ordered.

Curricula are tweaked, continuing education courses taken, grants written and computers hooked up.

School tours are conducted, databases updated and websites redesigned.

Amid this frenzy, tons of sweat equity is poured into the temporarily vacated buildings, based on a Clarion Herald request for information on local Catholic elementary schools’ summer projects.

In addition to new Smart Board risers, St. Rita’s summer to-do list included replacing the cafeteria ceiling, painting the second-floor hallway, classrooms and cubbies a bright cream; re-staining and varnishing doors; and buffing floors to a mirror shine.

St. Rita School pays for capital improvement projects with funds generated by the parish’s annual Pecan Festival and “Green and White” gala. Its maintenance staff of four reports every weekday throughout the summer from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“They take everything out of the classroom,” Daniel said, speaking last month during a campus walkabout. “They wipe down the walls; they mop and wax the floors; they wipe down the blinds – every classroom is cleaned from top to bottom,” she said. “It’s gonna smell clean for a while!”

Daniel rolled off the remainder of her summer checklist: replacing two cracked windows; brightening the cafeteria with LED lighting and freshly painted columns; replacing the urinals in a boys’ bathroom; installing new sinks and mirrors in a girls’ bathroom; and unpacking 16 new magnetic white boards.

“I become a construction manager during the summer,” Daniel said, smiling.

Classrooms brighter at VOL

Carolyn Levet, principal of Visitation of Our Lady School in Marrero, said that in addition to work handled by her faculty and maintenance staff, major campus enhancements were completed by two different groups of volunteers this summer.

Visitation’s Men’s Club provided the steam to replace about 90 percent of campus lighting with LED bulbs, with the crew of about 18 men working two nights a week for a month under the watchful eye of certified electricians who offered their expertise pro bono.

Helping to defray the $50,000 cost of materials was a grant from Entergy to NOLA LED, the Marrero-based retailer that supplied all bulbs for the project. Three Visitation entities split the balance of about $25,000: the Men’s Club, the parish and the school.

Men’s Club member Mark Sanderson described the increase in brightness and clarity at the school as “drastic,” with before-and-after measurements of luminosity telling the story.

“In a nutshell, it is three times brighter in the majority of rooms (post-LED installation),” Sanderson said. “It’s a total change. You flip the switch and the lights are on. It’s instant.”

Sanderson said Visitation’s church building made the switch to LED lighting two years ago to the tune of a 15- percent decrease in monthly electricity bills. That level of savings is anticipated for the school as well, he said.

Salesian youth volunteer

Visitation’s second major group of summertime helpers came as a pleasant surprise to Levet.

Last spring, the principal  received an email from a teacher from Academy of Our Lady: Gospel Roads, a service retreat coordinated by Salesian youth leaders in New Rochelle, New York, was seeking volunteer projects in the New Orleans area for its 16- to 25-year-old volunteers to complete.

“We are a feeder school for (Salesian-founded) Academy of Our Lady and Archbishop Shaw,” said Levet, explaining how her campus became aware of Gospel Roads’ offer of help. The crew of young-adult volunteers from New York and Louisiana ended up devoting two days in June to painting a cinder block hallway in the school colors of gray and maroon.
“It gives us a nice little facelift. That hallway hadn’t been painted in 50 years –  it was a really drab color,” Levet said. “I don’t think we could have taken (the painting project) on this summer since the Men’s Club had already committed to replacing the lights; it wouldn’t have been right to ask them to paint the hallway, too.”

Levet said the Gospel Roads missionaries helped her teachers with two more summertime jobs: repainting toys and play structures in the pre-kindergarten playground and readying the youngsters’ vegetable garden – used during the school year to harvest healthy snacks and teach science lessons – for its autumnal plantings.

Work experience gained

Elementary schools solicit elbow grease in other ways.

A few teenage parishioners and former students from St. Joan of Arc in LaPlace are hired each summer to assist with a handful of on-campus jobs, such as painting, pressure-washing and flower bed upkeep.

More involved summertime projects at St. Joan of Arc, completed by outside contractors, included improving air-conditioning in the gym and sprucing up the quad area. The old preschool playground – and its thousands of small pebbles – was removed to create a beautiful new green space.

Ready, set, paint!

But Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School in the CBD just might have captured the “Most Ambitious” award for the summer of 2016. Because Good Shepherd students attend school year-round, volunteers had just one week to repaint, redecorate and reorganize the entire school before the faculty returned from a brief summer break.

Nearly 40 volunteers, recruited via social media from local high schools, colleges and businesses, as well as school faculty, staff and board members, painted Good Shepherd’s whole interior – every classroom, hallway, office and stairwell – with 35 gallons of donated paint from Helm Paint & Decorating; bulletin boards were decorated by student council members from Mount Carmel Academy; and faith-related symbols of the school’s Jesuit and “Christ the Good Shepherd” connections were painted and hung throughout the Baronne Street campus.

Hives of activity

The following Catholic elementary schools also briefed the Clarion Herald on their summertime projects:

• Christ the King, Terrytown: painting of some classroom ceilings; built a play yard for the new 2-year-old program.

• Resurrection of Our Lord, New Orleans: construction of a covered walkway between the gym and early childhood building; stripping and waxing of floors; minor repairs.

• St. Andrew the Apostle, New Orleans: transformation of existing space inside the Early Learning Center into classrooms for a new program for infants (minimum age eight weeks) and 1-year-olds.

• St. Benilde, Metairie: replacement of chain-link fencing on Division Street with wrought-iron fencing; addition of a door to a new early childhood classroom.

• St. Cletus, Gretna: replacement of the main school building’s roof; removal of mulch filling from three playgrounds and pouring of a new concrete foundation and foam surfacing at each.

• St. Matthew the Apostle, River Ridge: installation of new blowers and insulation in the air-conditioning system on both floors of the main school building – the latest phase of an ongoing project to upgrade air conditioning throughout the parish plant.

• St. Peter Claver, New Orleans: painting of stairwells; touch-up painting in hallways and classrooms; waxing of floors in cafeteria, hallways and classrooms; installation of new computers in the technology lab.

• St. Peter, Covington: installation of aluminum fencing around main campus playground, cafeteria and pavilion areas; erection of shade-giving structures at the new early childhood playground.

• In anticipation of the opening of its St. Anthony Campus on Canal Street, Christian Brothers School installed a new playground, new perimeter fencing and additional security fencing between the church and school building; sealed and striped the blacktop play yard; enhanced landscaping in front of the main building; painted all classrooms and expanded some; renovated the auditorium; replaced flooring, lighting and window units where needed; added lab space and equipment; replaced blinds with modern window dressings; overhauled the technological infrastructure; added Smart Boards to all classrooms; replaced chalk boards with magnetic white boards; and erected a new school sign.

Christian Brothers’ City Park campus completed renovation of the president’s office and the installation of kitchen equipment to facilitate a new hot-lunch program.

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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