DENHAM SPRINGS — For more than two years, a flooded elementary school sat vacant here with a sign outside that read: "We will be back stronger than ever."

On Wednesday, officials unveiled plans for a new Denham Springs Elementary School, featuring an historic-looking brick façade with modern elements not yet seen in Livingston Parish.

"Not only do we have the amenities of the newness, we also still have some of the past, and we can't ever forget the past," Superintendent Rick Wentzel said during a presentation at the elementary school's temporary campus behind the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Teachers, school board members, other local officials and residents filled the cafeteria to see renderings of the new school for the first time.

The $13.4 million school on North Range Avenue is one of three schools the system plans to rebuild in the Denham Springs area since the August 2016 flood.

Officials have not yet provided plans for Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High. Those schools will be combined on a joint campus at the old junior high site on La. 16 south of Interstate 12.

Assistant Superintendent Joe Murphy said Denham Springs Elementary School is projected to open in August 2021. The old school was demolished recently. 

The school construction will be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The school system owed $500,000 as a penalty for carrying inadequate flood insurance on the campus.


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Murphy said school officials sought to design a school that reflects modern teaching practices, traveling to Texas, Florida and across Louisiana looking at model elementary schools. 

"We've learned that we must make our facilities a place that children want to be," Murphy said. "We have learned to make every facility, every place in our facilities, a learning space." 

Renderings show a two-story building with an open plan. The central structure will contain administrative offices, a library, computer labs and special education spaces. On each side, there are wings filled with classrooms.

The school will have more-flexible spaces for learning, officials said. The classroom hallways, for example, are curved, creating shallow spaces for teachers and students to meet. The two-story library will have full wall windows looking out onto a grassy field and playground.

The building will be constructed on fill dirt 2 feet above base flood elevation, said architect Jim Ziler. 

School Principal Gail DeLee said her favorite feature is a set of carpeted steps at the entrance to the school. She envisions kids waiting there for the bus on a rainy day or gathering for a special grade-wide presentation.

Behind the steps will be a large hanging that depicts a yellow jacket, the school's mascot.

DeLee said the idea to display the yellow jacket came from the students. Second- through fifth-graders were asked to write essays about what they wanted to see in the school, and this was one of their ideas, she said.

Other ideas incorporated into the final design are an outdoor eating area and purple-and-gold decorations, she said.

The school currently has 520 students enrolled, but the new facility will accommodate 700, hopefully enough for children of families moving to new subdivisions and apartment complexes in the area, she said.

Tessa Simmons, a second grade teacher, said that for the first time, she'll have a new classroom. She said the students will have a playground, and there will be more places for kids to collaborate throughout the school.

"They learn more from each other than just listening to me talk all day," she said.


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.