Lona Hankins

When people ask me to tell them what my favorite school building or post-Katrina construction project is, like a proud parent I respond, “I don’t have favorites, I love all of my children.”  I do have many proud memories and many challenging ones. My journey to the Recovery School District as the Director of Major Capital Projects can be summed up as result of a strong desire to utilize the skills I had accumulated over 18 years as a Project Manager in the refining industry to help rebuild the City of New Orleans after the destruction caused by the failure of the levee system. I felt strongly that the Children of New Orleans deserve a built environment that demonstrated that they were safe, worthy and loved. Before the storm both the public housing stock and portfolio of school buildings were crumbling, the children’s basic needs were not being met, so how could we expect them to thrive?  

With my goal and purpose established, to build as many 21st century schools as we could fund with the Federal Recovery Funds, I was able to navigate most every table or room I was allowed to enter. I will never forget that moment in August 2009 in a conference room in Baton Rouge, filled with local contractors, staff and a team sent from FEMA HQ to provide an assessment of where New Orleans was with its recovery.  After we had finished the agenda items, the gentleman from DC turned and ask, “What does it take to be done with the schools?”  Armed with information from the School Facilities Master Plan and being the only Black Woman in the room (perhaps the only native New Orleanian too) I answered confidently “Give us $1.8 Billion and we will walk away.”  After the rest of the room paused and composed themselves, they asked “How can you prove it?” Over the next year, my team worked tirelessly to grind out a solution to that question.

When I worked in the private sector there was very little Community Engagement required of me. The industrial plant I worked at was in the middle of a rural area with very few residential neighbors. When I arrived at the RSD, I had been focused on my bubble, my household, my parents, siblings and extended family. I knew the Uptown neighborhood I grew up in well, but had to humble myself to learn the rest of the city. So while I had the technical skills to manage Capital Projects, the Community Engagement portion of the work was the my weakness and gave me the most anxiety. I think that is why the Phillis Wheatley, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington projects stand out in my mind.  Each of these buildings require numerous public hearings often pitting the various stakeholders against one and other.  At Wheatley, we were balancing the historical architecture with the neighbors’ desire for a new building. At Carver, it was the preservationists holding onto a vision of a 1950s “school village” while the community saw mirrors between the architecture of the building and that of Angola prison. The strong alumni community were fierce advocates that future generations who would walk through the hallways of Carver would not only get a great building, but that the instruction that occurred with in the walls of the building would set the students up for success. So, the design of that building had to be one that worthy of their dreams. At Booker T., years of deferred maintenance rubbed up against the school’s legacy in the community. Again, the alumni community held me accountable every step of the way, they were a great partner who demanded excellence.

When I started in 2007, I had no idea how long it would last or how successful I would be, but I knew with every fiber of my being that I needed to be part of the solution. I knew the following then and still believe this now: 1) No parent should have to pick a school based on the quality of the physical building. 2) Our teachers need to working in buildings that are not obstacles to learning 3) Our children deserve facilities that yearn for their success. The 11 years I spent working on the school construction program were some of the most difficult, amazing and rewarding moments in my career. The gratitude I have to New Orleans for training me to become a servant leader is immeasurable.

The background here is that the RSD and OPSB had spent the 2008 developing a Schools Facilities Master Plan that essentially right sized the number of buildings based upon the demographic data.  When the storm hit we had too many facilities, enough to house 120,000 students and only 65,000 enrolled.  Additionally we had spent that same year performing detailed technical analysis of damages to each building.  The results of these assessment proved building after building, more damage than what was originally captured during 2006-2007 timeframe, before the RSD could stand up a facilities team.  

My response was initially “the 1950’s Master Plan that was used as the roadmap for many of the building’s constructed in the areas that received most of the storm damaged was grounded with systemic racist policies.  The teacher pupil ratio’s for Black children was 1:50 but for White children was 1:35.  Therefore for every school originally constructed for Black children then, is probably worth two schools today.  But let my team construct a solution that is grounded in FEMA policy and we will get back to you”.  The team of consultants that I managed spent the next nine to ten months grinding out a solution along with OPSB, FEMA and GOHSEP that led to the largest single Project Worksheet that FEMA had written up to that point and has been known as the Single Settlement Request (SSR).  It was used as a model to create changes in FEMA policy post Hurricane Sandy, now known as FEMA Public Assistance Alternative Procedures Program for Permanent Work section 428.  

Phillis Wheatley:  The original school building was designed by OPSB’s staff architect, Charles Colbert in 1954 for Black children in Treme’.  The building’s design was known internationally in the architecturally community for it’s cantilevered structure and many theoretical solutions to weather conditions in New Orleans.  The neighbors had a different perspective of the building and demanded a new one.  From the first meeting in 2008 when I was invited to a meeting to explain the master plan, through the numerous meetings to demolish the building and then design the new building, I was taught a master class on the benefits of community engagement.

George Washington Carver: This building was also designed by Charles Colbert.  I remember a particular meeting with preservationists who were elaborating about the architectural features of this building.  No one was expressing the original intentions of the campus, rather than integrate schools in the 1950’s the OPSB Facility Plan called for the construction of a “school village”.  The School Board would bus 11,000 Black children from Uptown and other parts of New Orleans to the pastoral campus of Carver.  OPSB purchased 60 acres of farm land and built an Elementary, Jr and Sr High School on this campus housing close to 4,000 students at one point.  Nor did the preservationists have an understanding of the negative impact the architecture may have had on the children who may have visited a parent in Angola prison’s cafeteria on Sunday, only to return to a mirror image of the cafeteria at Carver.  Carver had a strong alumni community, like most of high schools. 

Booker T. Washington: This was one of the last building designed by E. A. Christy, the Orleans Parish School Board Architect from 1911-1940.  This building was built at the edge of the of the newly constructed Calliope Housing projects in the early 1940’s.  The school’s auditorium was the center of Black cultural, political and other civic events.  The school’s academic program was know for producing students ready for college or ready to enter a trade.  My father learned his trade there in the early 1940’s at night school, after dropping out of high school.  This building suffered from years of deferred maintenance in addition to perhaps some experimental construction techniques originally used.  There was damage to the the structural steel because water had seeped behind all three courses of brick masonry and caused corrosion over time.  When we  realized the cost to repair the building would be more than the cost to build a new one, we knew we had to bring this information back to the community.  This construction project got caught in a quagmire of theatrics that were outside of the construction program’s control.  It became a test of patience, will and resilience.  I refused to be the person responsible for tearing down this piece of history and not build it back.  When the issue of the Silver City Dump raised it’s head, the team came up with a conservative solution to ensure the safety of the students.  When someone asked me would I put my child in school on this site, without a pause, my response was, “if the academic program meets my standards, unequivocal yes”.  The Booker T. Washington Alumni Community held me accountable every step of the way, they were a great partner who demanded excellence they received for the future generations of New Orleans children.  They lived the lessons they received as students at Booker T. Washington.