When the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board agreed last summer to reopen Lee High three years after it was shuttered, the idea was to create, over time, a high school with both a traditional attendance zone and a specialized program that would draw students from throughout the parish.
Pulling that off, however, might prove difficult as the school system tries to decide how to deal with the dilapidated facility. Depending on which route is taken, Lee High students could spend up to two years in exile from the school’s traditional home at 1105 Lee Drive.
School Board members on Wednesday were told that within 30 days, in order for planning to proceed, they need to decide whether to tear down and rebuild Lee High School where it stands or to build a new school elsewhere.
Curt Soderberg, with CSRS/Garrard Program Management, the joint partnership that oversees most school construction in Baton Rouge, did not say which option he prefers, but rebuilding the school where it stands is clearly the quickest and least complicated of the two options.
For a budget of about $58.5 million, the school system would tear down the one-story school and, starting in spring 2014, would rebuild it as a two-story building that would house roughly 1,200 students. Building a similar school in a new location would require spending $3 million of that budget to buy land and to pay for expected wetlands mitigation and also would likely delay construction for a year.
Rebuilding Lee High in its current location, however, would have its own complications. It would mean that in fall 2013, just a year after reopening, the small high school would have to move to another place for two years.
On Wednesday, the School Board examined several possible places to relocate, but all had shortcomings.
Carlos Sam, associate superintendent for school leadership and instruction, said the current plan is to open a specialized program at the new Lee High, likely a magnet program of some sort, in time for the 2013-14 school year. He said he’d like the board to decide that issue within the next month so he can start promoting the new program later this fall as part of the school system’s annual Magnet Mania campaign.
“As far the staff is concerned, we are trying to develop a program that’s attractive enough regardless of where it’s located,” Sam said.
Location, however, could prove critical. Throughout the history of the magnet program, an attractive location has often made a big difference in whether a magnet program reaches its potential. Magnet programs established in less attractive neighborhoods have usually struggled.
A similar situation emerged almost a decade ago at McKinley Middle School.
In 2004, McKinley Middle started its current magnet program in the former home of Capitol Middle School on Gus Young Drive and stayed there for two years. Meanwhile, the school system tore down and rebuilt the old McKinley Middle on Eddie Robinson Drive.
When the new building opened in 2006, it provided too inadequate of a draw. The new McKinley Middle did gain popularity over time — earlier this month it won a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award — but it took longer to earn that honor than three other magnet schools created in 2004. The school also never managed to attract a racially integrated student population; it currently is about 88 percent black.
The McKinley Middle magnet program that existed during much of the 1980s and 1990s had a much larger percentage of non-black students.
In 2004 and 2005, David Lerch, then the court-appointed monitor for the magnet program, warned in quarterly reports against the dangers of starting the new McKinley Middle Magnet school on Gus Young Drive, saying it jeopardized its success. Lerch is now serving as the consultant on a $4 million a year federal magnet school grant the school system plans to apply for.
The new Lee High has two primary goals.
One is to reopen the high school to serve not only the 227 ninth- and 10th-grade students currently attending the school, but also another 300 students once the school adds 11th and 12th grades in the next two years.
The second goal is to attract hundreds of more children in south Baton Rouge and other parts of town who are interested in magnet schools, like Baton Rouge Magnet High, but won’t attend a traditional public high school.
The $4 million a year federal grant would help the latter goal by offsetting the costs of up to four new programs, including one at Lee High. That grant, if the school system receives it, wouldn’t come through until early fall 2013.
Sam said the terms of the grant would require the school system to make sure it had a Lee High magnet operating somewhere no later than fall 2014.