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Frantz Escapes Chopping Block 

School predicted to re-open as a working elementary school in 2010 -- the 50th anniversary of its integration.

School officials had declared that they would no longer be used -- the walls that had deflected thrown tomatoes, the steps once climbed by a little girl flanked by federal marshals. Then, last Wednesday, New Orleans Public Schools removed William Frantz Elementary School from the list of buildings scheduled to close next year.

Too bad no one notified the protestors, who showed up at noon on Thursday, carrying a print of Norman Rockwell's painting The Problem We All Live With, which depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrating Frantz on Nov. 14, 1960. The group included about two dozen parents and grandparents, state Senate hopeful Toni Orrill, and, briefly, a classroom of Frantz children.

Orrill, who's running for the District 3 seat, says that the protesters talked with her about the school's important history, their loyalty to Frantz's principal, Waldo White Jr., and concerns about how Frantz students would be able to travel safely to and from Johnson Lockett Elementary without getting caught up in turf wars. Later in the day, Orrill attended a school board meeting and says she heard a cursory announcement that Frantz would not be closed.

It's not clear what moved Interim Superintendent Ora Watson to spare Frantz, and a spokesperson for the district could not be reached by press time. Orrill suggests that the protest played a role. 'I assume that it's partly because of the pressure,' she says, 'because we issued an advisory on Wednesday and distributed flyers to neighbors.'

While Orrill's volunteers were leafleting in the Lower Ninth Ward, Watson was meeting with a group that included school officials and David Shroyer, president of the board for the Ruby Bridges Foundation. They came to a verbal agreement that preserves Frantz as an active elementary school, Shroyer says, explaining the agreement's general tenets. For the first two years, the historic Frantz building (named to the National Register of Historic Places in March) would serve as a professional development center for parents and teachers while the foundation seeks federal, corporate, individual and foundation donor funds. Students from Frantz still would be transferred to the Lockett site during those two planning years and during the subsequent construction, but the Lockett name will be retired.

The final result will be a top-notch facility complete with a civil rights archive and museum, a state-of-the-art playground, and a world-class library for parents, students and citizens, Shroyer says. 'In the year 2010, the 50th anniversary of integration of Frantz, students will return to that campus, as a City-Wide Access (CWAS) school,' Shroyer says.

Ruby Bridges Hall has for years made regular stops at Frantz with special visits on 'Ruby Bridges Day,' which the school celebrates each year on Nov. 14. She maintains a busy travel schedule, visiting schools across the nation for the foundation. She was out of town last week, and could not be reached for comment by press time.

Shroyer emphasizes that a diverse student body is as important as a restored building. In 1960, he notes, the school had a 100 percent white enrollment. Today, its student body is entirely black. 'We believe it can be re-integrated, and that is Ruby's highest hope,' he says. 'Because her life is dedicated to bridging these divides between races.' Neighbors and students already understand her bravery and what it stood for, says Orrill. That's why, she says, William Frantz Elementary has remained a source of pride even as the building fell victim to termite infestation and years of deferred maintenance. "Ruby's story is part of the bones of that school; it's part of the spirit of that school and that community. It means a lot to a lot of people."

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