David Thibodaux Magnet graduates first class

Sixty-three students made history Friday as the first graduating class of David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy, the Lafayette Parish school system’s newest high school.

The school, which is focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is known as a “school of choice” — meaning that students apply for a spot in the school.

The school began four years ago in shared space on the campus of the former Acadiana Technical College before moving to its current site on Teurlings Drive. In summer 2012, the school’s name changed from the David Thibodaux Career and Technical High School to the David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy.

Jenny Perry, 17, is part of the school’s inaugural class that started at Thibodaux four years ago and received her diploma Friday. She credits the hands-on learning for fueling her love of biology.

“The teachers really worked with me and helped me get on the path to explore my interest,” Perry said. “They helped me know what to expect in college.”

Perry plans to attend South Louisiana Community College after graduation and later transfer to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She plans to study biology, with a goal of becoming a marine biologist.

Fellow graduate Alyssa St. Julien, 19, applied to attend the school in her sophomore year because of its focus on the sciences. She said she’ll likely need to continue her studies at a technical college, but ultimately wants to start working as a medical office assistant after graduation.

A majority of the graduating class will leave high school with college credits in hand as well their high school diplomas. Some also have industry-based certifications to help start careers.

“We have two students who each have 42 college credits,” said Thibodaux Principal Jeff Debetaz. “Most have some college credit.”

The initial vision for the school when it was launched with a career-and-technical focus was for students to earn industry-based certifications and be prepared for a career or college after high school.

That vision isn’t unchanged, though there is now less of a focus on industry-based certification programs as the emphasis shifted to STEM, Debetaz said. Students who started at the high school on a career and technical track were allowed to continue their studies, he said.

Seth Stelly, 17, was zoned for Acadiana High but attended another school of choice, the Academy of Information Technology at Carencro High, his freshman year. He applied for Thibodaux before his sophomore year.

“I realized my interest was more in the arts and their career and technical (side) offered photography and art design,” Stelly said.

Although those classes were phased out in the STEM transition, Stelly said, he had opportunities to intern at a local theater, Cité des Arts, where he gained experience. He plans to study fashion design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

The high school moved to its current campus, the former N.P. Moss Middle School, in 2011. Work on an expansion of the school is currently underway. A new, 5,000-square-foot engineering lab should be complete by August, and by next December, a new, 27,000-square-foot classroom wing, complete with state-of-the-art science labs, could be ready for students, Debetaz said.

The school has grown from one class of about 50 ninth-grade students when it started in August 2010 to a campus of about 700 students in grades six through 12.

“Interest in us is growing. We have a waiting list at every grade level. We’re really excited about that,” Debetaz said. “Next year, we have demand for 945 students. We did a lot of things to grow the culture at this school. We’ve had family nights, lock-ins. The more you get involved in this school, the more successful you’re going to be.”

Another school of choice, the Early College Academy, held its commencement on May 13. The academy is a high school housed on South Louisiana Community College in partnership with the school system. Students take college and high school courses and earn a high school diploma and associate degree.

Other Lafayette Parish high schools hold individual graduation ceremonies Saturday at the Cajundome.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.