Two new public schools in Baton Rouge are ready for students to fill their halls, but the coronavirus outbreak is keeping those places largely vacant.
Instead, their students are working virtually from home as the 2020-21 school year begins and will continue to do so until Labor Day, perhaps longer.
Absent the pandemic, Jefferson Terrace Academy and GEO Next Generation High School would have celebrated their first days of school with all the usual fanfare. Instead, both facilities are in a state of limbo, open only to staff and construction workers.
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Jefferson Terrace Academy, 5601 Upton Drive, is three blocks from Jefferson Terrace Elementary. The new $32.9 million facility is replacing that 62-year-old neighborhood elementary school and adding middle school grades. This new 125,000-square-foot structure will eventually hold more than 700 students.
Jefferson Terrace Principal Zane Whittington moved into his office in late July and school staff moved in soon after.
“This was created for the community,” Whittington said. “Unfortunately, we’re just going to have to put it on pause for a little bit before the community can enjoy the space fully.”
GEO Next Generation High, 2355 N. Sherwood Forest Drive, is a charter school that opened its doors in August 2019 and now has a new facility to go along with it. But like Jefferson Terrace, the new 47,000-square-foot facility is nearly a ghost town.
“We’re ready to get (students) in the building,” said Sandra Douglas, chief academic officer for the charter school group that oversees the high school. “But we want to make sure first that it’s safe for our teachers and our students.”
The Indiana-based GEO Foundation, which runs three charter schools in Baton Rouge, including the high school, moved onto this property in 2018 after purchasing St. Louis King of France after the Catholic school had closed. First, GEO Prep Academy of Greater Baton Rouge, a K-8 school, moved onto the property. The high school followed a year later.
Now, the high school has a two-story, $11.5 million high school built next door. Adding a 10th grade this year, high school enrollment has grown to about 230 students. The new facility has space for as many as 500 students.
Not all newly constructed schools locally are starting the new school year without students inside.
In Ascension Parish, Bluff Middle and Bluff Ridge Primary are opening up at new sites in Prairieville. Across the Mississippi River in Brusly, a rebuilt Brusly High is also opening Monday. All three new schools will have students in classrooms on day one.
In their own ways, both Jefferson Terrace Academy and GEO Next Generation High School are attempts to meet the educational needs of today’s children. Yet, the schools were both developed pre-COVID-19 and weren’t built with distance education in mind. Both schools have sent home school-issued laptops, purchased devices for children in early grades and provided hot spots for families without laptops.
Douglas is hoping COVID cases will decline enough by September to open up GEO Next and her group’s other two schools in Baton Rouge for in-person instruction. But even then, many families may opt to keep their children at home.
“Online is here to stay,” Douglas said. “So even when we come back to the building, not everyone is coming back to the building.”
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The new Jefferson Terrace employs a design style known as “21st-century schools.” It follows on the heels of Liberty High School, formerly Lee High, which was demolished and rebuilt in 2016, and Park Elementary, which was demolished and rebuilt last year. Grace Hebert Curtis Architects of Baton Rouge designed Jefferson Terrace in collaboration with Omaha, Nebraska-based DLR Groups. The two firms previously collaborated on Liberty High.
Grace Hebert Curtis also designed the new GEO Next Generation High.
The new Jefferson Terrace Academy is undergoing a final flurry of work. Floors and windows are being cleaned. The road around the school was repaved. Most of the landscaping is planted. The most conspicuous missing element last week was the lack of grass; sod was to be planted any day.
The facility itself is awash with open spaces and glass windows. The library is open as well, with no doors or walls. Even the staircase to the second floor is designed as a learning space.
Instead of traditional classrooms, the new school has “learning pods”: blocks of classrooms clustered around a common space and restrooms.
To help the staff acquaint themselves with their sprawling new home, Whittington sent them on scavenger hunt last week to find items hidden throughout the campus.
Newly appointed East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Leslie Brown took a tour of new Jefferson Terrace and came away impressed.
“It is absolutely nothing like anything I have seen before,” she said.
Brown took over as superintendent in early August. Previously, she spent her 41 years in education in south Florida, mostly in Fort Lauderdale.
Standing in a wing built for pre-K students at Jefferson Terrace, Brown said she likes how learning elements have been woven throughout the school’s design.
“It’s designed around how a child accesses and how a child processes information,” Brown said.
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At GEO Next Generation, high school students eschew college-level courses in favor of actually enrolling in college courses on a college campus, specifically Baton Rouge Community College.
Designers have been working with the nonprofit group New Schools for Baton Rouge in building the school.
About a quarter of GEO Next’s students are enrolled in BRCC classes, Douglas said. “Two or three students already have 18 credits,” she said.
Sarah Turner, managing director of facilities for New Schools for Baton Rouge, has been working with the charter school group in building the new school. She said the designers focused on creating “a high school that feels like a college campus.”
“We added extra break-out and study spaces, a commons area and other touch-down lounges for students returning from off-campus classes or needing to work in groups,” Turner said. “We tried to create as many unique learning spaces as possible — from a robotics lab to classrooms with garage doors that open to the outside.”
In a sign of the times, though, learning on a college campus is mostly a no-go at the moment: BRCC is offering almost solely virtual instruction this fall.