Still months away from completion and more than a year from opening, the new Lee High School is resembling less a high school and more a Silicon Valley office complex.
The plans for what will happen inside the four large buildings sprouting up along Lee Drive, though, could prove even more unusual.
Organizers are developing what they describe as “a school like no other.”
“This is going to be something no one has seen anywhere in Louisiana and not just the building itself but the concept of it,” incoming East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake said June 15 as he toured Lee High’s construction site.
Outgoing Superintendent Bernard Taylor began in summer 2012 to envision Lee High as a 21st-century school full of technology with a special emphasis on learning through student projects. The result is an architectural design that eschews a traditional school layout for flexible and adaptive spaces that can change with the times and with the shifting demands of educators.
The four buildings under construction include a commons building with a cafeteria and a gym and three independent academies with distinct themes: bioscience, digital and media arts and engineering and robotics. Each academy has a massive three-story atrium intended for large projects, which the architects call the “wow space.”
A diverse team led by Principal Nan McCann met every Wednesday between December and April to flesh out what to do in this $54.7 million facility. In particular, they tried to figure out how to make good use of the large, airy spaces as well as spaces such as a “think tank” and “learning coaches area” rather than a “conference room” or “teachers lounge.”
They eventually settled on making “computational thinking and big data” the overarching theme for the new high school. Consequently, every class will touch on elements of computer science and statistical analysis of large data sets.
A discussion paper developed by the team described the idea as “creating technology rather than just consuming it.”
The paper also offers a more practical justification for the theme.
“The fields of computing and data analysis are among the fastest growing job sectors in America and the world,” the paper says. “In fact, all college-based job sectors will require more and more computing and data analysis skills. This is an essential component to preparing students to be college and career ready.”
Frank Neubrander, LSU math professor, co-director of the university’s Cain Center and a member of the team, acknowledged that Lee High is one of many schools in the country that focuses on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — but he said Lee’s theme sets it apart.
“To the best of my knowledge, very few of them attempt to emphasize exposure to computational science and data analysis the way Lee High School will,” Neubrander said.
Another uncommon feature will be the school’s foreign language offerings. Current plans call for as many as 11 language courses, some taught in person but others taught remotely via computer.
“We can hop into LSU’s classroom. They might be teaching Mandarin Chinese,” McCann said. “Or let’s say it’s Latin and we got Baton Rouge High’s Latin class.”
Doubtful at first, Neubrander said he came to see the potential for the new Lee High as the team continued to meet. He said the team worked well because it included many key players who got on board early, including top district administrators, LSU faculty members and the superintendent of LSU Lab School, Wade Smith. Representatives from the nonprofit Foundation for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System as well as local businesses also were important participants on the team because private fundraising and business partnerships are crucial for many of the pricey projects envisioned by the team, Neubrander said.
The Cain Center formalized its relationship with Lee High on May 21 when the School Board approved a $1.5 million, five-year contract to turn Lee into an “early college” for LSU.
Students at Lee High will have ample opportunity to gain college credit while still in high school, and at the same time, LSU professors across the university will gain access to Lee’s state-of-the-art facilities — not to mention its 1,200 students — to further their academic research.
LSU will help Lee develop courses for its themes, including in such areas as bioscience, which is not generally taught in high school.
The agreement goes further. It calls for developing a “comprehensive” set of dual enrollment and Advanced Placement courses for not just Lee but also nearby McKinley High, as well as training teachers at both schools to teach the college-level coursework. The plan is to expand this work to other East Baton Rouge Parish high schools over time. The $1.5 million cost of the partnership will be partially offset by the $300 per course, per student that the state pays universities that offer dual enrollment.
Lee High, however, remains at the center of this partnership.
The high school, named after the Confederate general, left behind its past as a neighborhood high school in May 2013 when the dilapidated 50-year-old school was torn down.
Faculty and students moved 2 miles north into a temporary home, the former Valley Park junior high at 4510 Bawell St., and relaunched as a magnet school, similar to nearby Baton Rouge Magnet High. In June 2014, longtime Baton Rouge Magnet High Principal McCann was named principal of Lee High as well. She shuttles back and forth between the two campuses while associate principals handle many day-to-day affairs.
Lee, which is to open at 1105 Lee Drive in August 2016, is halfway to its goal of 1,200 students.
With the growth it’s experiencing, it’s going to be tight at Valley Park for the 10 months it will take before the new campus is completed.
“We’re going to have students hanging from the rafters,” McCann joked.
McCann said she is not waiting until the new building is finished to start testing the innovations planned for the new campus. She is making some of the incoming ninth-graders guinea pigs for some of those initiatives. For example, the school is moving to online textbooks.
“All the textbooks will be on (digital) tablets,” McCann said. “They will not be carrying around books, but they will have books in the classroom if they need them.”
“Everyone will have their own tablet,” she added.
As he toured the campus Monday, Drake said he has no doubts the new high school will prove more and more appealing as it moves closer to reality.
“We’re going to see some private school kids returning,” he said. “That’s my gut feeling. People are going to be like, ‘Oh, I wanna be here.’ ”