WALKER — When students at Walker High School return from winter vacation, they'll find three new buildings waiting for them.
The school has been undergoing a $25 million expansion, and the first new buildings are set to open after the break.
Those new facilities will accommodate the rapidly growing school's band, industrial arts program and cafeteria.
"We're excited about more room, being able to accommodate more students and being able to have more programs," said principal Jason St. Pierre.
In the past ten years, enrollment at Walker High has jumped from 899 to 1,201, according to state counts. Add to that a wide range of unconventional programs — drones, cookie business, and a credit union — and the 42-year-old school buildings are stretched tight for space.
"We’re just growing so fast," said David "Bo" Graham, a Livingston Parish School Board member, who represents the Walker area. He said growth in the Walker district has in the last five years accounted for 50 percent of the overall growth of student population in the parish.
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St. Pierre said every classroom is used every hour, and 17 teachers don't have their own homeroom where they can grade papers or develop their own programs. Meanwhile, he said, the band room lacks space to hold practices with the full ensemble, and the cafeteria seats just 17 percent of the students.
One of the new buildings will house everything to do with the band — an airy practice room three times the size of the current one, which should hold all 200 kids, offices, uniform and instrument storage and practice rooms.
The cafeteria building was built to accommodate 300 kids with six lunch lines — up from two. Plus, a covered seating area has space for 300 more and roll-down windows in case it rains.
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Inside the brand new industrial arts building, there are stalls and ventilation hookups for 16 welding machines, twice as many as the school currently has. There is also room for a green house and carpentry programs. St. Pierre estimates the new building will allow an additional 20 kids to take part in each career-oriented program annually.
The expanded school is funded by a 20-year bond that passed in 2014.
The school's architect, Jim Ziler, of Ziler Architects in Lafayette, said the new facilities are constructed to work for a 1,400 students. But an expansion on the new classroom building could increase capacity to 1,700.
"I hope it will be big enough for several years, but with the growth rate, who knows," Graham said.
Ziler said the project's total cost — including the three buildings set to open next week, a new gym, classroom building and renovations to a football film room — is $24,341,458. That's approximately $141.82 per square foot.
Ziler said a focus in designing the buildings was on doing more with less.
Officials consolidated as many needs as possible, in order to save money, Ziler said. The library could coexist with the classrooms, for example, but the noisy band rooms and dusty welding classes got their own buildings.
Construction materials were also selected to further cut costs, he said.
He used a light steel frame within the classroom building, for example, since steel is sold by the pound.
Even when all the new buildings are complete, many high schoolers will spend a portion of their days in the old school.
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As soon as students move into the new buildings in January, St. Pierre plans to turn the old cafeteria into a Papa John's, where students will work to earn their ProStart certifications. He also plans to convert the band room into a sports film room and turn the industrial arts building into an expanded ROTC space. Some of the classrooms in the old building will continue to be used for high school classes.
Next to open at Walker High School is the classroom building, a giant, brick-faced structure facing Florida Boulevard, Ziler said. The two-story building will hold 28 new classrooms and serve as the new entrance for the school, he said. It is scheduled to open in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. Shortly thereafter, the new gymnasium should be ready, he said.
School officials intend to re-purpose most of Walker High's old buildings as a new home for Walker Freshman High, Graham said. He said the freshman high school's buildings on Burgess Avenue could be converted temporarily into a new junior high to relieve stress on Walker's two existing ones.
“We have to do something," he said. "We’re just overcrowded."