As Lee High School edges closer and closer to completion, Earl Kern is finding that his job duties are changing.
On Tuesday, the program manager for the $54.7 million project showed three groups around the nearly finished high school — a function he’s been performing for weeks at the request of school administrators.
“I got other jobs, you know,” said Kern. “I told them in my next life I’m gonna be a tour guide.” By mid-May, teachers will be showing themselves around. And by Aug. 10, the first day of the 2016-17 school year, Lee High’s students will get a chance to explore their new digs.
The open campus, with three specialized academies and a large commons building, is designed more like a college than a high school, affording an unusual level of independence to the as many as 1,200 teenagers it is built to educate.
All children are to have laptops, and Wi-Fi access points abound, meaning good reception all the way to a walking track that borders the entire 26-acre campus. A new AT&T cell phone tower, disguised to look like a pine tree — right down to a fake tree trunk — helps as well.
“More people ask about that cell tower than anything else. People are amazed by that cell tower,” said Kern, who works for CSRS/Tillage Construction.
The independence is evident inside each of the three academies, which focus respectively on digital arts, biomedicine and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Movable walls allow teachers to expand and contract classrooms as needed. Many classrooms are not classrooms at all, but workspaces of various sorts.
The furnishings tell the story as well: V-shaped tables interlock with each other and high-backed mustard yellow chairs take the place of traditional desks. Kern said the tabletops are dry erase, allowing students to write on them using markers.
Teachers will have large rolling cabinets as opposed to homerooms to keep their stuff, and each floor will feature a communal teacher work center.
Food is another indicator of independence. The high school is blessed with a large, airy cafeteria. It features a terraced, maple wood staircase, which will have seating on it, as well as outdoor seating flowing out into an expansive courtyard. Also, each academy will have microwave ovens and vending machines, which will offer sandwiches.
“Students who want to, never have to leave their building,” Kern explained. “They can’t eat in the classroom, but they can eat anywhere on the first floor, on the counters or whatever.”
East Baton Rouge Parish School Board President Barbara Freiberg, who is both a graduate of Lee High and a former faculty member of the high school, said the new Lee should foster creative independence.
“We’ve given them a lot of flexibility in how they handle their day. I like that. And as a student, I think I’d like that,” Freiberg said. “It should grow some pretty mature kids who know how to take care of themselves and be part of a larger group.”
The school, however, has changed from its original conception in key ways and may change again after it opens.
Principal Nan McCann has made her mark. Best known as principal of Baton Rouge Magnet High, which she also runs, McCann was named principal of Lee High as well in 2014, just as construction was about to start.
One change of hers is rather than having students limited to just one of the academies, they will be able to range around the campus for different classes.
But McCann also plans to group students by grade level, with one academy housing all the ninth-graders, the largest grade, and the upper grades split in the two other academies. Former Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who served from 2012 to 2015, envisioned more mixing of students in all grades in each academy.
Another change is under construction: a covered walkway between the digital arts and the main building, known as the Commons, so students can avoid getting wet in the rain.
“Dr. Taylor did not want canopies,” Kern recalled. “But after Superintendent (Warren) Drake came on board and after several people complained, we are now adding canopies.”
The more-distant STEM and biomedicine academies, however, will not be connected by canopies, meaning students in those buildings will need umbrellas on rainy days, much like students at LSU and Southern University have.
Most recently built public schools in Baton Rouge were races to the finish line. For instance, Progress Elementary barely opened on time by the start of school in 2013 and still was undergoing construction months later.
Lee High, by contrast, has enjoyed a longer-than-normal construction period. Since August 2013, Lee students and faculty have been holding classes at an old junior high school two miles away at 4510 Bawell St., a much smaller campus than the school they will return to this summer.
The extra time is allowing Kern and general contractor Milton J. Womack Inc. of Baton Rouge to work out all the kinks by the mid-May completion date.
“We want the punch list 100 percent complete,” Kern said. “Of course, we have the time to do that.”
Kern said Womack’s professional work has made his life much easier.
“This is probably the smoothest project I’ve been a part of,” Kern said.
One area that still is lagging is corporate partnerships. Speaking before the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge in February, McCann made a plea for more companies to get on board. These companies are to help furnish the largest labs in each academy, known as Wow spaces.
“We’re working on it. We’re not where we want to be,” Freiberg acknowledged.
Freiberg is celebrating her 50th reunion this year and plans to join the Lee High class of 1966 on a tour of the new Lee in June.
Amid the modern buildings, small traces of the old Lee are evident to the knowing eye. For instance, a drainage swale, which used to lead down to a large parking lot, is still there, though the parking lot is now a grassy field. A decorative bridge now crosses over the ditch and small boulders are being placed along its bank.
Also, a large oak tree in the center of the campus is now the center of the new Lee High courtyard.
In the Commons building, visitors will be able to see trophies on display from the old school as well as the plaque placed on the original building back in 1959.
Freiberg said she expects great things from the new Lee.
“It’s just wonderful,” Freiberg said. “I can’t say enough about what a fantastic facility it is or about the opportunities it opens up for students.”