Almost a decade in the making, a career-themed high school to be built behind the old Bon Marché Mall in Melrose East is finally starting to take shape.
The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has scheduled a special meeting Thursday to debate whether to move forward with the project, specifically to green-light the search for an architect. If the board says yes, the $17 million new school remains on track to open in fall 2017.
Currently dubbed The Career Academy, the proposed school was one of several construction projects named on the ballot when voters renewed a 1-cent sales tax in spring 2008.
The proposed school is 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 that’s opening in August and will be run by Baton Rouge Community College.
Putting a high school next to a community college was a conscious choice.
“The idea and the ultimate goal we’re working toward is that a high school student on graduation night could receive a high school diploma, a job certification and an associate’s degree all at the same time,” said Gwen Hamilton, interim president and CEO of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority.
Van Guarino knows something about all that. He worked for years as an auto instructor at the Livingston Parish Literacy and Technology Center in Walker, a joint venture between the parish and Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. The center opened in 2005 and is one of the models for Ardendale.
A couple of years ago, Guarino left Livingston to take over as chairman of BRCC’s automotive department. Since then, he has been shepherding the construction of the 85,000-square-foot auto training center, which is nearing completion on North Lobdell Boulevard.
The new training center has several facets. Student will be able learn how to repair gas-powered, diesel and natural-gas powered vehicles. Guarino said in the future he expects students will be able to repair electric cars as well. One of six large labs at the L-shaped center has deep holes dug into its concrete slab where 18-wheelers will roll atop for repairs. A collision center also is in the works, a place where students can learn how to do auto body work, he said.
By their second semester, students will head to paid internships at car dealerships. As a result, in addition to gaining a general certification for auto repair at the community college, students will gain certification to work on the vehicles of a specific manufacturer.
“It’s a demanding program,” Guarino said. “It will be six days a week if you do it right, three at school and three at the dealership.”
Guarino said that some auto training programs are stuck in time because they don’t forge ongoing relationships with car manufacturers to keep abreast of changes in the industry. Toyota already is onboard and three other manufacturers are considering participating as well, he said.
To what extent high school students will stand to benefit from all this, though, is unclear.
Guarino said he’s had very little contact with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system so far about how to align his plans with their plans. For instance, he cast doubt on whether high school students younger than 18 will be able to take part in the training he’s developing because of concerns about insurance liability raised by the car companies. He said an additional pre-automotive program may have to be set up for high school students.
To the east of the new auto center is the open field set aside for the new career high school. It is not likely to be open too much longer with construction expected to begin sometime in the near future.
Superintendent Warren Drake on Thursday plans to present his latest thoughts on the new school.
Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton says the 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, including plumber, web designer or medical technician.
“The facilities are being designed to be flexible to the changes in workforce demands, and there is additional space located on the site for future construction,” Clayton said.
The new high school will be limited to students in the 11th and 12th grades. 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.
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.
At the same time, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system wants all of its high schools to have focus areas that are draws for students and give teenagers job options when they graduate.
In this vein, Drake in late January floated the idea of downsizing the long-planned career high school in favor of directing more money to pay for refurbishing and reopening Istrouma High School, which the school system regained control of from the state last month. Drake envisions offering a range of career-and-technical educational programs at Istrouma as well.
After catching flack from supporters, Drake soon dropped the idea of taking money from The Career Academy. Now he says he’s committed to spending the full $17 million long set aside for the proposed high school and will find the extra money he wants for the needed repairs for Istrouma elsewhere.
Liz Smith, director of policy and research for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said The Career Academy has persevered despite multiple superintendents, each with different interests and concerns, because it’s been needed for a long time.
“This is a high-priority area for us,” Smith said, “and we’re glad the School Board is moving forward.”
Smith said her office has helped the school system identify job pathways that are still in demand, despite the recent downturn in the state economy.
“In the Capital region, we’re lucky. We’re still pretty strong,” she said. “Our employers are reporting that they still need skilled workers.”
She suggested the school system form an advisory group of business representatives who will provide ongoing feedback about the current and future jobs in the region.
“The economy changes all the time,” Smith said.
This is not Baton Rouge’s first stab at forming a career-oriented high school.
Nancy Roberts oversaw one, a charter school that operated from 2011 until it was closed in 2015 due to poor academic performance. Roberts is executive director of Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, or LRCE, which offers training and instructional materials to educators.
Roberts was developing plans for her school, which was also called The Career Academy, even as the school system was talking about forming its own career-oriented high school.
In 2010, the School Board awarded Roberts a charter. The school system considered letting Roberts and company move into Ardendale once it was built but later dropped the idea and went off on its own.
During its run, Roberts’ school operated at three locations in north Baton Rouge and had three principals. It was an all-day program for students in the ninth to 12th grades. The school focused training on high-needs job areas, and reports that many of its graduates went on to work in those fields.
Where it faltered was academically. The school earned a solid F grade, though it showed some academic promise during its final year before it was closed.
Finding and keeping good teachers was a constant problem and will be a problem for the new career high school, Roberts said. For a career-oriented school, the problems are even greater. Needed are people who not only can teach sometimes tough-to-teach teenagers but are also themselves skilled in the trades being offered, she said.
“What we have to face is how to get top-notch people to go work in north Baton Rouge, and I don’t care what color they are,” Roberts said.