Less than two weeks after regaining control, East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Warren Drake is questioning whether it makes sense to try to reopen Istrouma High School by August, saying there might not be enough time.
“We don’t want to do anything halfway,” he said of restoring the school. “We want to make sure we do this right the first time.”
Drake made the comments Monday morning during a tour of the North Baton Rouge high school. He was accompanied by three School Board members and members of his cabinet, along with members of the media.
Before making a decision, Drake plans to ask the School Board to discuss the future of Istrouma when it meets Saturday for a retreat. Drake said his hesitation stems mostly from how long it took to get the school back from the state and how little time remains — seven months — to get the high school repaired and ready to reopen.
Istrouma High was the original public high school for North Baton Rouge when it opened in 1917. In 1950, it moved to its current location at 3730 Winbourne Ave.
Drake, who spent months pressing the state to return Istrouma, noted the School Board voted in October on a transfer agreement. Drake had hoped the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would act on the agreement that same month, but BESE didn’t approve it until Jan. 14.
He said he’s considering a full reopening, opening only part of the campus, or delaying reopening until a future date.
Recent repair estimates range from $10.5 million to $15 million.
Even a partial reopening would be expensive. Drake said before any part of the school can reopen, the air-conditioning, electrical system and plumbing all need to be replaced.
“As you can see, the school has good bones,” Drake said, looking around the marble-lined lobby.
The lobby, however, is empty. The trophies have been taken away and there’s a large, empty glass case. That case for years was home to the statue of Nawaganti, the high school’s Native American mascot. Alumni recently refurbished the statue and donated it to the Baton Rouge Room at the Goodwood Library.
Parts of the high school are in decent shape, others not so good.
The grounds were cleaned up a week ago by volunteers during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service project. The first floor was refurbished and all the windows were replaced months before the state seized control of the chronically low-performing high school in summer 2012. Two years later, the state closed the high school, sparking sporadic protests among alumni.
Many of those new windows as well as many doors were boarded-up when the school was closed. Drake said the school system is talking with the manufacturer of the windows to see what it will cost to bring the boarded-up windows back to shape.
Even on the ground floor, paint was chipping off the walls in places, apparently the result of not having air conditioning blowing these past two years.
The roughest parts of Istrouma’s campus were several exterior buildings. Walking through the locker room near the gym, a couple of visitors had to cover their faces to keep from inhaling dust and mold.
Parts of the campus looked frozen in time. In the band room, for instance, a musical score written in colored marker was still visible on a dry erase board. Band uniforms were hanging in a closet, waiting to be worn again.
Walking through a rear classroom wing, School Board President Barbara Freiberg wondered whether this part of the school was worth reopening at all.
“You could make it into a really nice space,” said Earl Kern, program manager with CSRS/Tillage Construction.
“It would be very expensive,” Freiberg responded.
Drake said the extent of renovations also depend on the academic plans for the new Istrouma, which are in their infancy. That plan, depending on what’s settled on, could increase the cost of the renovations.
Given the high school is next to Baton Rouge Community College, formerly Louisiana Technical College, Drake sees career-and-technical education as a logical fit for Istrouma. The high school already has a woodshop and a welding lab that could be restored, he noted.
There’s also talk of adding a magnet program to Istrouma — school officials are seeking a federal magnet school grant for that purpose — and perhaps adding middle school grades.
Whatever he does, Drake said, he plans to have extensive community meetings and outreach to get input and support for the new high school.
“At some point, I’m going to walk door to door to every home on this road,” he said, pointing down Winbourne Avenue.