Nearly 1,400 teenagers poured out of cars and buses Wednesday on a humid early August morning and stepped into an unfamiliar, or at best partially familiar place.
“We’re lost, so it’s awesome,” said Aisha Yesufu, a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, looking around at the renovated high school. “Completely lost and we’re seniors. We’re like freshman.”
Their 86-year-old high school has been revived and remade at a cost of $58.2 million. Wednesday, the first day of the 2012-13 school year for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, was these teenagers’ first chance to see what work had been done while they were gone.
The rundown high school was emptied in 2010 and the students have spent their past two years in another rundown campus, the former Lee High School.
On Wednesday, Baton Rouge High students studied closely school-provided maps, trying to figure out where they needed to go in their renovated school.
Unlike most students, Leslie Morgan, a junior, had helped a teacher move in the week before, but was still lost.
“I’ve been here seven times, and I still don’t know where I’m going,” Morgan said.
Hardly anyone missed Lee.
“Not at all,” said Latanya Beverly, a junior. “I’m so excited about this new building. It’s beautiful and amazing.”
Junior Cyndy Mitchell echoed her friend Latanya.
“It used to flood. It was crazy,” Mitchell said, referring to Lee. “I’m so happy about this. I’m so excited.”
Principal Nan McCann said she was pleased with how the students’ return went.
“I had all the teachers out with their maps. I thought it went really smooth,” she said.
The return to 2825 Government St. carried one irony for the principal.
“I’m glad to be home, and my poor husband he’s over at Lee High School where I just left,” said McCann, referring to John McCann, former principal of Woodlawn High.
Lee High’s return as a neighborhood high school, three years after it was closed to avoid possible state takeover, was decided over the summer and it’s a work in progress.
The campus, which can hold more than 1,000 students, had about 200 ninth- and 10th-graders Wednesday, but the school will grow grade by grade over time. The school system is also planning to add more specialized and advanced educational programs to the reopened school to try to attract back south Baton Rouge parents who send their children to private schools.
John McCann, assistant principal at the reopened Lee, said the starting-small approach makes sense.
“It’s easier to start with a low number, more one-on-one, build a culture, and you can also make corrections more quickly,” he said.
Lee held a well-attended open house Monday.
“The cafeteria was full,” John McCann said. “There seemed to be a lot of interest in the Lee High reopening.”
The reopenings of Baton Rouge Magnet and Lee High schools were the highlight of a busy first day of school.
Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who just started in mid-June, declared his first opening day in Baton Rouge one of the smoothest he had ever experienced.
“I’ve had fewer situations to resolve here than in districts with much smaller numbers of students,” said Taylor, who previously served as superintendent in Kansas City, Mo., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
“I have to take my hat off to the staff who made this possible,” he added.
A total of 43,085 students registered for school Wednesday in 85 school system schools. That’s 345 students fewer than by end of the first day a year ago, but 330 students more than the school system enrolled in August 2010.
The Recovery School District, a state agency seeking to turnaround low-performing schools formerly operated by traditional school districts, runs seven and oversees an eighth former East Baton Rouge Parish school system school.
Recovery School District spokeswoman Kizzy Payton said Wednesday she was still awaiting enrollment information from all RSD schools and expected to have that information Thursday.
RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard made the rounds in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, starting at Glen Oaks Middle. The school is sharing space temporarily with students from Crestworth Learning Academy, a school that is closed due to unfixed fire code violations, other needed repairs and unpaid utility bills.
“I spoke very clearly to both of the groups that this is a temporary thing,” Dobard said, “and I expect them as young people to behave appropriately whether it’s a co-location or not. It’s temporary, and we just want to make sure that that campus at Crestworth is in great shape for those kids to go back.”
At Istrouma High School at midmorning, Principal Robert Webb showed Dobard around, telling him that about 360 students enrolled so far. That’s more than 300 students fewer students than were officially in 2011-12 at Istrouma, when the school was still run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
The Istrouma school library, however, had several families in line for registration Wednesday. Dobard said some families did not realize they could stay with the school after getting information from East Baton Rouge Parish about their other options.
Prescott Middle School, which has moved from its traditional campus on Prescott Road and is sharing space with Istrouma, reported about 270 students in midmorning. That’s about 40 students above its projections but almost identical to the school’s official 2011-12 enrollment.
Prescott’s old campus now sits empty. A fence blocks access to all but the front wing of the old middle school, a wing being used for office space. Dobard said he is considering using the old Prescott as an alternative school and to house a parent center now at Lanier Elementary.