Over the next decade, jobs in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math are expected to grow twice as fast in Louisiana than those in any other field, researchers have found.
But local schools are producing too few students in those STEM fields to meet ever-growing demand.
Since 2010, advocates for the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, known as SciHigh, have focused on solving that problem.
And on Tuesday, 25 years after the school's founding, education officials and political leaders broke ground on a new, state-of the-art home for SciHigh, located in the heart of New Orleans' blossoming medical corridor.
Called the Albert Wicker School, the three-story, 129,716-square-foot building is slated to be finished in 2021, officials said.
The building’s construction represents a “story of perseverance," according to Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.
"Today is a great day," Lewis said during the groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday. "It took a long time, and a longer time than was anticipated, but guess what — we’re here."
SciHigh traces its founding to 1993, when a group of medical school professors created the New Orleans Center for Science & Math to help create more local talent for the city's medical industry.
The school first operated as a half-day program out of Delgado Community College's campus.
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as devastation to the city and its buildings and infrastructure forced big changes onto the school system, a newly formed nonprofit called The Advocates for Science & Mathematics Education Inc. applied for and was granted a charter, which they used to run SciHigh as a full-day school.
The school has changed location several times. After Delgado, SciHigh operated out of a temporary site at Audubon Zoo before moving to its current location at the Allen School at the corner of Nashville and Loyola avenues.
Now, the school is slated to get a $27.5 million building designed by Verges Rome Architects and built by The McDonnel Group.
It will hold 750 students in ninth through 12th grades — a 50 percent increase from its current population.
The school will include four science labs, a visual arts lab, a digital graphics lab and a computer lab.
It will also have an engineering lab, advanced technology lab, a media information center, an outdoor learning space for large-scale projects, and classrooms with overhead garage doors.
“They are building a school to address the growing need and demand for STEM-focused education," Lewis said.
For those with the right training, prospects are bright. According to a 2017 survey by a subsidiary of CareerBuilders, the online job search site, median earnings in STEM jobs are nearly twice the earnings in other fields.
On Tuesday, State Rep. Royce Duplessis credited the school's longtime advocates for insisting that SciHigh be held at the Wicker School site, which was part of New Orleans' overarching School Facilities Master Plan.
There was tough competition among schools to get new buildings as part of the $1.8 billion plan, an unprecedented construction project approved in 2008 to rebuild the city's school buildings due to Katrina and the floods that followed.
"This is your win," Duplessis said.
SciHigh's new facility is being given the same name as the school that used to be on the lot: The Wicker School. Until last year, when plans to demolish the old building and put up a new one were approved, the old school housed Success Preparatory Academy, another charter school.
Albert Wicker was an influential New Orleans educator who served as the principal of the historic Bienville Street School from 1901 to 1928.
Wicker, who was born in 1872, was an advocate for African-American education, and when he died in 1928, the OPSB recommended that the name of the Bienville Street School be changed to honor him.
On Tuesday, Lewis praised SciHigh's past performance. The state has given the charter school a "B" grade for the last four years in a row, even under tougher standards rolled out this year.
"The school has continued to be a bright light," Lewis said. "And we are certain that the new facility will allow the school to function at even higher levels with the curriculum and this new building."