Three months after high school students returned to the shuttered campus of Istrouma High School, more than 100 middle schoolers are about to join them.
The high school, led by Principal Reginald Douglas, moved into the 70-year-old facility in north Baton Rouge in early August — just ninth- and 10th-graders initially — and is occupying the second floor. Teachers and staff for the middle school were moving onto the ground floor over the Thanksgiving break, and students are set to arrive Monday.
They all were supposed to move in together when the 2017-18 school year began Aug. 9, but renovations to the ground floor weren’t finished. Instead, the middle schoolers spent the past 15 weeks a mile south at the campus of the long-closed Eden Park Elementary School.
For the Istrouma Middle educators, there’s no love lost in leaving Eden Park Elementary.
Associate Principal Tongelia Rowan, who was tapped to lead the middle school in May, remembers when she first arrived at Eden Park in early August and saw its poor condition.
“It was so disheartening,” Rowan said, but she was buoyed by the knowledge their stay would be temporary.
They held classes on the second floor at the northern end of the old elementary school, which was built in 1960. An alternative school, Eden Park Disciplinary Center, continues to operate at the southern end of the facility. School officials are considering demolishing the place.
Rowan said she and the faculty made the best of things.
“We just rolled up our sleeves and made it as good as we possibly could.”
The reopening of the once prominent Istrouma High School, which first opened in 1917 and closed in 2014, has been the subject of much publicity. Less known has been the simultaneous reopening of the also once prominent Istrouma Middle Magnet School, which closed in 2004.
The combined middle-high school has more than 500 students. It cost more than $24 million to renovate the facility at 3730 Winbourne Ave. Once Istrouma reaches capacity, it will offer classes in grades six to 12 and educate an estimated 1,200 students. The first graduating class won’t be until May 2020.
Like the school of old, the new Istrouma Middle Magnet School is a dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet program with minimum academic admissions requirements: 2.5 minimum GPA for its broadcast communications track and 3.0 GPA for its honors track. It also serves as a feeder to the high school.
And, thanks to a move by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board in October, the high school will have its own, smaller magnet program next fall to take in students from the middle school.
Rowan admits it’s been hard to sell Istrouma Middle Magnet to prospective families while the school was housed at Eden Park.
“We do have a lot of parents who decided to stay where they were for the year,” she said.
Both the middle and high school magnet programs are accepting applications for the 2018-19 school year; the deadline to apply is Dec. 4. Rowan said parents can schedule tours of Istrouma. And there’s an open house Dec. 5 open to existing families and newcomers, she said.
Allen Pete Jr., who teaches computer literacy at Istrouma Middle and a course for eighth-graders called "Journey to Careers" showed up during Thanksgiving break to get his computer lab ready for the arrival of students.
“I’m so happy to be out of there,” Pete said, referring to Eden Park.
His personal computer was set up in his new room, but the student desks were empty. He’s expecting about 24 more computers just like his own.
“They said they’d be in this week,” he said.
His students have been using Chromebooks so far this year, relying on Linux-based office software. The new computers will allow him to use the official Microsoft Office suite. He plans to train his students in sixth and seventh grades to learn all of Microsoft Office’s intricacies under a plan to earn a certification from the software giant. He said the class can be “very tedious” and “highly specialized,” but it has its pleasures.
“As it builds, it’s like a musical piece,” he said.
Derrick Kyle, who teaches broadcast communications, is also glad to be on Istrouma’s campus. Eden Park has an antiquated electrical system that forced him to bring in extra cords and surge protectors as well as use low wattage light bulbs. He expects to be able to pick up the pace now, including having students run a continuously streaming online radio station.
Istrouma Middle grew out of a pre-existing magnet program at Brookstown Middle School. Kyle joined the Brookstown faculty in 2014 to teach in its just-formed magnet program and he’s been on a tumultuous journey ever since.
In August 2016, the two-year-old school was forced to share space with Scotlandville Middle School after Brookstown flooded during the historic flooding that month. Some items salvaged from the flood were secured in the Brookstown gym only to be destroyed three months later when the gym caught fire in an arson.
“I lost a lot of equipment in the flood and then there was the fire,” Kyle recalled.
Brookstown students moved one more time in 2016-17, leaving Scotlandville Middle to spend the second semester at the campus of Howell Park Elementary School while Brookstown Middle’s facility was repaired. But rather than returning everyone to Brookstown Middle, the School Board decided to peel off the magnet program and use it instead as the nucleus of a new Istrouma Middle Magnet School.
“I’ve seen the whole cycle,” Kyle said. “I’m happy to come to a place and space where I can see all that I’ve worked for come to fruition.”