The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday agreed to search for an architect to design a career-themed high school behind the old Bon Marché Mall in Melrose East.
The 6-1 vote keeps the project on track to open in fall 2017.
The proposed $17 million school, which has been informally called The Career Academy but lacks an official name, was one of several projects named on the ballot when voters renewed a 1-cent sales tax in spring 2008. It’s been discussed for years but is only now taking shape.
The proposed school is to be situated within a nearly 200-acre, still-to-be-built, mixed-use residential development known as Ardendale, formerly Smiley Heights. The new high school will be in the northeast corner of the tract, across the street from an already under construction automotive training center opening in August and to be run by Baton Rouge Community College.
Superintendent Warren Drake also updated the board on plans for a fall 2017 reopening of Istrouma High School, including the programs it will offer, as well as additional programs to be added to other public high schools in Baton Rouge.
“We want excellent programs at every high school, and that’s what we’re doing,” Drake said.
Board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith was the only board member who voted no on the career high school issue. She said she is not against creating a career high school, but the plans presented Thursday didn’t make sense to her, and the whole process has been rushed.
Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson said she supports the Ardendale high school but recused herself, noting she owns property that abuts Ardendale. Board member David Tatman left Thursday’s meeting early and did not vote.
Board member Jackie Mims did support moving forward with the Ardendale high school and said she likes a lot of the other high school changes being proposed. But she expressed concern the school system may be trying to do too much too quickly. She said that was the downfall of “Redesign,” a desegregation-related reconfiguration of instructional programs in the late 1980s.
“I don’t want us to stretch ourselves too thin,” she said.
The proposed career high school will focus on four broad areas: computer science, skilled crafts, medicine and manufacturing. Within those areas, students will follow at least 11 different pathways to jobs, such as plumber, Web designer or medical technician.
The new high school will be limited to students in 11th and 12th grade. These juniors and seniors, harking from a dozen Baton Rouge high schools, will start and end each day at their home schools, where they will take their core academic classes. They will take a bus daily to the career high school to learn job skills.
The size of the property is unclear. Drake is finalizing an agreement to take control of almost 8 acres next to BRCC’s property, plus another 5 or 6 adjacent acres that would require wetlands mitigation to develop.
High school career centers like this are common throughout the country — Jefferson and Caddo parishes have run similar schools for decades. The approach allows public school districts to concentrate their spending in one place and not duplicate programs in multiple locations.
The Ardendale school will by no means be the only game in town.
Drake has big plans for Istrouma and has identified four focus areas: STEM, skilled crafts, hospitality and tourism, and manufacturing. While skilled crafts and manufacturing also are slated for Ardendale, Istrouma will focus on job training not offered at Ardendale, such as carpentry, mechanical drafting and pipe fitting.
And the price tag for reopening Istrouma has gone up. Drake said he’s identified $21.4 million, all from money raised by the 1-cent sales tax, to use for Istrouma, a figure that doesn’t count $1 million more the Legislature approved last year to refurbish Istrouma High, money that has yet to come in. Previous Istrouma repair estimates ranged from $15 million to $20 million.
While centrally located, the new Ardendale high school will be far away from Northeast and Woodlawn high schools, making it impractical to bus kids from those schools to Ardendale each day. For Woodlawn High, school officials are looking this fall to sign on with the Associated Builders and Contractors training center at 19251 Highland Road for dual-enrollment credit in eight skilled trades, ranging from welding to mobile crane operation.