Southern, Lab School target younger students

It’s a “modest, humble building” now, Preston Castille Jr., acknowledged, but the Baton Rouge lawyer has a grand vision for what’s going to be happening in the future in the building now labeled “SMED 122.”

“We want this building to be a magical experience,” said Castille, the father of a senior at Southern University Lab School, a defense attorney and president of the school’s foundation.

The building in question is the former home of the Southern University Office of Student Financial Aid and before that the College of Mechanical Engineering, before it was rebuilt next door.

Starting in August, the building will be home to four “Mini Labs” where Southern University Lab School students from prekindergarten to grade 12 will learn from instructors in Southern’s colleges of business, engineering, law and nursing.

The colleges of engineering and nursing are so close to both Southern Lab and to SMED 122 that they collectively constitute what Castille is calling a “Quadrangle of Academic Excellence.” Students as young as four-years-old will be walking a short distance down Swan Avenue to this nondescript building.

“We want them exposed to the university,” Castille said.

Southern University Chancellor James Llorens said, “They don’t even have to cross the street to get to it.”

Llorens said the idea came about as part of larger strategy to revive the lab school.

Like its brethren at other Louisiana colleges, Southern Lab was formed to allow the university’s college of education to train student teachers and to test out instructional techniques. Southern Professor VarJanis Peoples likens it to a “teaching hospital.”

The lab school receives some state funding, but makes up the rest of its costs through tuition and the support of Southern University. The lab school, however, was steadily losing students in recent years and forcing the parent university to cover more and more of its red ink, which had grown to more than $650,000.

“We believed it was a great opportunity for the lab school to refocus, repurpose itself,” Llorens said.

A marketing outreach campaign that began in summer 2011 helped draw in more than 100 new students, increasing the lab school’s enrollment this school year to an official total of 413 students. The university also is spending another $1.2 million to renovate the old building and has retooled its dual enrollment program that allows lab students to earn college credits starting as early as 10th grade.

The Mini Labs are up next.

“You can think of it as dual enrollment, but starting as early as 4 years old,” Luria Young, an associate professor in Southern’s College of Education.

By joining forces with four other colleges, Southern Lab is broadening its connection to the university well beyond its long-standing connection to the College of Education.

Llorens said Southern had more to offer the lab school that it had been offering.

“We realized we needed to take advantage of the resources on campus,” he said.

Castille, an adjunct professor at the Southern University Law Center, sees lots of possibilities in the new Mini Labs. He discussed how students can take the room the law school will use to hold mock trials and then turn around and use that space to convene as a legislative body.

“Students will see the legal system coming to life,” he said.

Llorens said the faculty members he has talked to are very excited about collaborating with the lab school.

“I think you’ll find a total buy-in by the faculty,” he said.

Part of the interest stems from concerns about the quality of current elementary and secondary education and the opportunity the Mini Labs present to prepare students for higher education from a young age, he said.

Llorens said Southern is developing a longitudinal study to follow the Mini Labs over time and that math and science doctoral students will have offices in the former student financial aid building.

Llorens said the labs will get some renovations over the summer, but the idea is to keep them sparse so they can change as colleges shift from lesson to lesson, experiment to experiment.

“I don’t want it to be anything so fixed that they see the same thing over and over again,” he said.