The staff of Legacy of Dr. Josie R. Johnson Montessori School hung posters and decorated the halls of their new North Side home at Family Baptist Church last week as they prepared to welcome students for a new school year.
And they couldn't help but comment on the stark differences between the space and their former school location at Our Lady of Victory Church.
"It actually smells good in here," said Tonicia Abdur Salaam, the head of the charter school. "And look, there's nothing dripping from the ceiling!"
Leaking ceilings and unusable bathrooms were among the chief complaints in a dispute that pushed the school — called JJ Legacy for short — out of its previous location.
The school's move also marks the end of Our Lady of Victory. The Catholic church "ceased operations" at the start of the month and "next steps for the parish are yet to be determined," according to a statement from the Rev. Michael Tix, the church's parochial administrator.
Earlier this summer, leaders at Our Lady of Victory moved to evict the school for unpaid rent. Abdur Salaam said the school withheld rent because critical repairs went unaddressed by the church and church leaders failed to provide the paperwork the school needed to apply for state funding.
That state funding came over the summer and, according to the statement from Tix, the school and church were "able to agree upon a plan that culminates with the school paying the parish the last of the outstanding rent."
Abdur Salaam said some negotiations are ongoing and the school may file an insurance claim for what she said is about $160,000 worth of materials that were water-damaged. A leak left nearly 2 inches of standing water in the school's toddler room, she said.
The school's new home at Family Baptist Church is also an old building, Abdur Salaam said, but she's already had church officials move to fix and replace broken doors and address other maintenance problems.
"The difference is huge," she said. "They are making sure we have what we need."
The rent for the new space is about $20,000 lower per year, she said, but the school has about one-third of the space it had at Our Lady of Victory.
Still, with working air conditioning and functioning bathrooms, Abdur Salaam said the smaller space feels more usable than the previous location.
Tracey Fluegel, an interventionist in the school, has worked with JJ Legacy for five years.
"This is the first time I've felt that we are intentionally welcomed and can walk in partnership with our new landlord," she said, adding that she credits Abdur Salaam's persistence for the improved conditions.
The new location — on North 22nd and Girard Avenues — has a playground across the street so gym class can be outside. And the school plans to partner with the neighboring Boys & Girls Club for after-school programming, Abdur Salaam said.
But moving the school about 3.5 miles south into the Jordan neighborhood drove several families away. The tuition-based preschool and K-6 charter school served about 140 students last school year; about 90 will be starting classes this week.
"Once they see this place and hear about it, I think they'll be back," said Olutimilehin Olusanya, who teaches sixth grade. "Considering the monstrosity we left last year, this new place is a godsend."