As Ascension Parish builds, schools work to stay ahead
When Ascension Parish school officials learn a new subdivision is under development, they turn to a formula to estimate how many new students the subdivision might mean for the school system.
“If that development was built out and occupied, how many primary (students), how many middle school, how many high schools students” would the new neighborhood likely represent, asked Chad Lynch, director of planning and construction for the School Board.
The formula isn’t a crystal ball.
Several years ago, two or three new subdivision plans were approved for the Sorrento and Darrow areas.
“Then the economy dipped, and they didn’t happen,” Lynch said.
“It’s a moving target, and you have to watch it,” Lynch said of anticipating school system demands.
What the School Board can count on, though, is school enrollment has been increasing by 400 to 500 children every year for the past several years.
“That’s what we expect when we look down the road,” Lynch said.
School enrollment has been on a path of mostly steady growth dating back to the 1950s, he said.
New arrivals after Hurricane Katrina kicked it up, with more than 2,000 new students in the 2005-06 school year.
Not all of those students stayed — the number of new students dropped a bit over the next two years — but by 2007-08, enrollment resumed its upward track.
Ascension Parish, with a population of more than 107,000, according to the 2010 census, has for several years been among the fastest-growing parishes/counties in the state and country.
The school system here, “no question about it, is one of the biggest selling tools we have,” said Mike Eades, president and chief executive officer of the Ascension Economic Development Corp.
Kenny Hill, who moved with his wife, Liz, and two sons Stellan, 8, and Nathan, 4, to the Dutchtown area from Lafayette in January said he and his wife are pleased with the school system and had heard positive things before their move here.
Nathan is in a church’s mothers day-out program, and Stellan is a third-grader at Dutchtown Primary.
“The teachers and the principal care about those kids; they treat them as their own and they want the parents to be involved,” said Hill, an engineer with PCS Nitrogen in Geismar.
To handle the growing enrollment in the schools, the School Board is continually renovating and expanding its schools, building new ones and buying property for future sites.
“You really have to respond to the growth,” Lynch said.
With a $100 million bond issue approved by voters in 2009, funded by an extension of a long-standing 15.08-mill property tax, the School Board took on 57 projects.
The projects range from restroom renovations and electrical upgrades at several schools to major projects ,such as the construction of the new G.W. Carver Primary School — which students started attending this month — and construction work underway at Prairieville Middle School.
Half of the 57 projects are complete, and the rest are in various stages of progress.
At Prairieville Middle, the sound of jack hammers has become part of the background noise to be taken in stride for the school’s 893 students.
A handsome new main building is going up that will have a new front office, library and 36 classrooms to replace many of the school’s temporary buildings. The new cafeteria opened this school year.
“We are really, really excited,” Principal Dina Davis said. “We have really great students and it will give them a greater sense of pride.”
Looking for land
Part of the school district’s game plan is to buy land now for schools in the future.
“Our way of dealing with (the growth) is to buy ahead, get it early,” before prices go up, Lynch said.
Particularly in areas where schools are overcrowded, the School Board looks for property before developers find it.
Property prices have skyrocked in the Prairieville area, Lynch said, but other areas of the parish still have land available at affordable prices.
The school district has five pieces of property for future school sites; two are in the 60-acre range, the size required for a high school, and the other three are smaller.
Lynch said he’s heard from planners at national school planning and construction conferences that there is no land available for new schools in some school districts in New York and California.
“They might be buying an old store on a corner and building straight up” at a multimillion-dollar cost per school, he said.
Lynch says the Ascension school system needs 15 acres for a primary-school site.
There are 16 primary schools, counting Lake Elementary, which is K-8.
The optimum number of students at the primary level is 600, but several of the schools are over that number.
“Six of them are at a point where I’ve got to relieve them,” Lynch said.
One way to do that is to build a new, nearby primary school.
And in the interim, there are T-buildings.
“We want a room and a teacher for every 20 to 25 kids,” Lynch said. “T-buildings allow us time to build another school.”
Since 2002, the School Board has built eight primary school buildings to each house 720 students. Seven of those projects were new schools; the eighth was the new location for G.W. Carver Primary.
For middle schools, the school board looks at sites of 20 acres and an optimal student count of 750.
The parish has eight public middle schools, again counting Lake Elementary, which goes to eighth grade.
Two of them, Prairieville Middle School and Dutchtown Middle School, are considered overcrowded.
High schools require 60 acres to accommodate more and bigger athletic facilities and a parking lot for students who drive.
The parish has four public high schools, with an optimum student enrollment of 1,700 to 1,800; three of the schools are close to those figures.
The board will be voting soon on whether to give the green light to building freshman academies at three high schools: East Ascension High, Dutchtown High School and St. Amant High School.
The academies would accommodate 600 freshmen at each school, easing present and future overcrowding.
Much of the cost of the Freshman Academy project, an estimated $65.4 million, is available now to the school system.
It has $42 million in its major construction fund, thanks to increased sales tax collections in the parish.
Sales-and-use tax revenue for the school system was 27 percent higher for the nine months ending in September than for the same period last year.
“What is driving it are plant expansions and plant construction projects, and what’s driving that is the low price of natural gas,” said Diane Allison, director of business services for the school district.
Retail sales are up in Ascension, too, as are motor vehicle sales, the latter an especially “good sign of consumer confidence,” Allison said.
Looking down the road
A proposed plan for future school projects would, if approved by voters, be funded by bond extensions in 2015 and 2018 to build three new primaries, a new middle school and a new high school, in addition to renovations at existing schools.
Some of the future projects would include work at Dutchtown Primary, which, with approximately 800 students, is one of the schools dealing with overcrowding.
T-buildings, 17 of them, are lined in neat rows on the campus, with common walkways and awnings.
In recent years, a renovation expanded the cafeteria that serves the students of both Dutchtown Primary and the adjacent Dutchtown Middle.
Lunchtime still takes some strategic planning, with several lunch shifts, the first of which, for middle-school students, begins at 9:45 a.m., Dutchtown Primary Principal Patricia Espinosa said.
That may be a bit early for lunch, considering the school day for the middle school begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. The primary school starts and ends later, at 8:25 a.m. and 3:25 p.m.
“We’re feeding 1,600 kids at two schools,” Espinosa said.
The School Board would like to continue improvements for Dutchtown Primary and also build a new primary school in the area.
An historic two-classroom building at Dutchtown Primary, in the heart of the campus, points to the ingenuity of the school system in husbanding its resources.
In good shape, with spacious classrooms, the building was constructed in the early 1900s as a school itself.
The building has a special meaning for second-grade teacher Angel Contine, whose classroom is there.
Her grandmother, as a child, went to school there.