After two years of exile, dozens of teachers and staff had an awestruck homecoming Wednesday at the $58.2 million renovated and expanded Baton Rouge Magnet High School.
“This is above and beyond anything I’ve seen in a high school,” said Jennifer Lewis, an American and European history teacher at the high school since 1999. “It just makes you want to cry, because it’s so beautiful what we came back to.”
“You can tell it’s the old Baton Rouge High, but it’s so much better,” said Tiffany Moore, biology teacher who also started in 1999.
On Wednesday, the first day of classes for the 2012-2013 school year for East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, the more than 1,300 students will get their first chance to see the transformed school.
Baton Rouge Magnet High students, staff and faculty moved to the old campus of Lee High School, a few miles away, in 2010 while construction was ongoing.
The original 112,000-square-foot historic main Baton Rouge High building, erected in 1926, has been largely preserved. Several smaller ancillary buildings have been demolished and replaced by 220,000-square-feet of additional space. Although they maintain the brick façade of the original campus, the new buildings have modern touches.
In the next few days, Earl Kern, program manager for CSRS/Garrard Program Management, said workers are fixing smaller “punch list” items, taking advantage of the absence of students. Items unfinished by next Wednesday will be worked on outside of school hours, Kern said.
Kern works for a private partnership which oversees most construction for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. The general contractor for the renovation and expansion of the 86-year-old campus is MAPP Construction of Baton Rouge.
All the teachers The Advocate approached Wednesday said it was the first time they had seen the what some called COG, the “Castle on Government.
A couple of teachers said they heard rumors that they’d be arrested if they tried.
“It wasn’t a rumor. I said they would be,” said Kern.
Until it was recently declared substantially complete, the entire campus was under the control of MAPP Construction and anyone entering without authorization was trespassing, he said.
Michael Davis, a 1991 graduate of the magnet school and a math teacher for the past two years, struggled to find the words to express his feelings.
“It’s nostalgic, but it’s all brand new, so it’s a real mismatch of feelings and excitement,” he said.
Davis said he was struck by the new portions, particularly the two new gyms, which replaced the old, decrepit gym, a place he remembers cramming into for physical education classes.
“It was probably the most damaged, weathered part of the school,” he recalled.
At the same time, Davis appreciated the preservation of the old, noting in particular the full restoration of the original art-deco auditorium.
“It’s overwhelming, it really is,” he said.
Unlike more-veteran teachers, Patrick Donald has only briefly visited the old campus. He was immediately struck by how changed the place is.
“When I walked through the front door, it was like a university,” said Donald.
Looking out over the oak trees along Government Street from his second-floor classroom, Donald said the place is much different than the classroom he walked into in 2010 when the high school first took over the old campus of Lee High.
Lee High is reopening this school year with freshman and sophomores only three years after being closed to avoid takeover by the Louisiana Department of Education for poor academic performance.
Donald said that while big, the new Baton Rouge Magnet High is more compact than Lee.
“The school at Lee was so spread out, they had trouble getting to class on time,” Donald said. “They had the T-buildings way out there.”
Principal Nan McCann, who moved in on July 19 with her administrative staff, said she is happy to have more company.
“Now it has a little more warmth to it,” said McCann, who was recently selected as Louisiana principal of the year for high schools. “That’s what makes it a school. They bring their stuff, they personalize their room.
“It’s a beautiful building, and teachers are all excited,” McCann said.
McCann said she’s been most impressed by the library. A library science minor back in college, she said loves to hang out in the library.
“I’ve always said the library is the hub of the school, the blood flows through the library,” she said.
McCann said the new labs and built-in technology far surpass what was at the school before.
“Now with this we can only just soar,” she said. “It’s truly unbelievable that this is our school now.”
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