ST. GABRIEL — Many St. Gabriel residents long have complained that they are often an afterthought because they live in the only Iberville Parish city on the east side of the Mississippi River.
Earlier this week, however, the parish school system’s energetic Superintendent Ed Cancienne bounced up and down on his feet, proudly declaring, “We finally have equality on the east and west side.”
Cancienne was talking about the newly christened, $10.7 million Math, Science & Arts Academy-East school building which opened Friday for the first day of classes.
It’s the first new school built in the parish in 20 years, officials said. East side academy students previously attended classes at the St. Gabriel Community Center.
About 230 students shuffled loudly past the 53,000-square-foot building’s brick façade, through the 1,000-square-foot glass atrium and into the “cafetorium” for the year’s first morning assembly.
Academy Assistant Director Chuck Johnson started off his morning address sternly warning students there would be consequences for disrespecting faculty, sloppy dress, cellphone use and tardiness.
Then, Johnson broke into a wide grin as he told the students, “We’re going to have a lot of fun this year.”
And why wouldn’t they?
Each student has the opportunity to act in the academy’s theater program or dance in a professional-looking dance studio, play in an orchestra, broadcast his or her own material in the building’s digital media center or sing in the chorus.
Additionally, the older students are each given Apple laptops to use throughout the wireless Internet-enabled building.
The academy program boasts a technology- and arts-rich curriculum where all classes at the high school level are honors courses, School Board member Nancy Broussard said.
“It’s a huge thing for the community to have such a brand-new, outstanding facility to support what we started three years ago,” with the academy program, Broussard said.
School Board member Melvin Lodge said all students who graduate from the academy will be prepared for the rigors of a four-year university education.
The academy building was funded with revenue from a 31-mill special property tax parish voters approved in 2008. The tax is expected to generate $10.5 million per year for 20 years.
But many people, including former Mayor George Grace, doubted the east side academy would ever be built. They changed their minds only when the school system started construction of the new academy on its 16-acre site in July 2010.
More than a few School Board discussions were dominated with board members questioning the fiscal sense of building a multimillion-dollar facility for such a comparatively small student body.
Broussard, one of two School Board members who represent the St. Gabriel area, said the issue has been the toughest political battle she’s fought in 16 years on the School Board.
“Promises made; promises kept,” said Elvis Cavalier, the school system’s academy director as he toured the school earlier in the week.
The building features two computer labs, a dance studio, a health clinic with two exam rooms, along with science labs designed to mimic facilities found at major universities, said Patrick Norris, the school system’s projects manager.
The campus also has vast, open spaces, a 34,000-square-foot outdoor courtyard, a boardwalk and an outdoor classroom area overlooking a pond, Norris said.
The entire construction project, designed by architect Henri Carville, of Baton Rouge-based Bani, Carville & Brown AIA, was planned with an eye toward energy efficiency, Norris said.
The campus has a solar-powered hot water heating system, low-flow restroom fixtures and a reduced-energy lighting system controlled by motion sensors.
The building will use about 40 percent less electrical power than a comparable building equipped with traditional fixtures and systems, saving the school district about $20,000 in annual energy costs, he said.
But on the first day of classes, Johnson, the school’s top educator, didn’t talk much about construction issues.
Instead, Johnson spoke about the 80 academy students who attended private schools and other schools outside of the parish prior to this school year.
“What we’ve done is show the public that we can provide a quality education right here in their own back yard,” Johnson said.