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Role in the community park on Baronne Street earns honors for International High School of New Orleans

BY SUZANNE PFEFFERLE TAFUR | CONTRIBUTING WRITER DEC 31, 2020 – 7:00 AM

Richard McCall, left, of the Downtown Development District, and Sean Wilson, International High School of New Orleans head of school, sit in Legacy Park Dec. 29. PHOTO BY CHRIS GRANGER

Through a novel collaboration, the New Orleans Downtown Development District and the International High School of New Orleans transformed a downtown parking lot into a shared green space, serving students and the surrounding community. The retreat — Legacy Park — is on the 700 block of Baronne Street. Although the ribbon-cutting took place in November 2019, IHSNO is still being applauded for its part of the project — most recently with an award.

In mid-December, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools honored IHSNO with the 2020 Community Roots Award, which recognizes a Louisiana charter school that demonstrates community engagement through partnerships with outside organizations and individuals.

The project began when IHSNO was approached by the American Society for Landscape Architects, said Sean Wilson, IHSNO head of school.

“We were told about a grant they were going to be awarding, and that they had chosen downtown as a space they wanted to see some kind of development in,” he said, recalling how his team submitted a proposal but had modest expectations of winning.

“Lo and behold, a few weeks later, we were notified that we were awarded the grant, and that we would be working with several other community members to install the park on our campus.”

IHSNO and DDD launched the project with additional grants and private corporate funding. The actual construction lasted for about four months, during fall 2019.

“There was a meeting where students and community members came together to talk about what they would envision the park to be, and how it could be integrated into what’s already happening in the downtown area and our campus,” Wilson said. “There were other opportunities to engage with students in the actual construction of the park.”

The park is always open to the general public, and it’s designed with three separate “rooms,” said Richard McCall, the interim president and director of operations for DDD.

There is a shaded area in the front, where wellness classes like yoga and Tai Chi take place. The middle room can function as an outdoor classroom; movies can be projected onto an adjacent wall. The third section operates as an open play area, perfect for outdoor sports.

Another plus? The park incorporates green infrastructure, such as stormwater management features.

“It’s really a win-win for both the downtown community and the high school,” McCall said. “One of the things that we’ve heard over the years is that we need more access to usable public space and open space. And so it’s an amenity that benefits the surrounding neighborhood.”

Students can laze in the park before and after school, and during lunch.

“It’s an inviting park space, compared to hanging out in the parking lot, which is what they were doing prior to the park development,” McCall said.

Nicholas Keen, an IHSNO junior and the student body vice president, enjoys interacting with friends in the fresh air, during lunch and even class.

“It’s hard to focus in a classroom,” he said. “Being able to go there and sit in the city and relax, and really have that peace and comfort, is amazing.”

Wilson said the interactions between the students and the community have been amicable and that the recent Community Roots Award reinforces that Legacy Park is a success.

“It’s an affirmation that we are doing the right thing when we are involving the public in our work,” he said.

IHSNO students are working on an outdoor mural. The staff would like to eventually establish a community gym for indoor activities, along with a small soccer field that’s accessible to all.

“I think this is just the beginning,” Wilson said of IHSNO’s partnership with DDD. “There are more projects in the works that I believe will benefit the burgeoning residential community in the downtown area, as well as the school.”