Two long-awaited high schools are opening this week in Baton Rouge, offering different pathways to college and the working world.
Opening Monday is Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School, the newest member of a Chicago-based network of 32 Catholic schools in 21 states and the network’s first in Louisiana.
Supporters have been working for more than two years to bring Cristo Rey to Baton Rouge. Its inaugural class of 78 ninth-graders will not only learn in the classroom, but starting Monday, they also will go to work. At least one full day each week, they will work at a white-collar job in town. In exchange, 17 Baton Rouge employers have agreed to underwrite part of their tuition.
On Wednesday, students return to Lee High School historic home in the Southdowns subdivision after spending three years in a temporary location. They return to a new $54.7 million building and a new academic program. About 850 students in grades nine to 12 are expected to show up, nearly twice the number who enrolled last year; the public school eventually will grow to about 1,200 students.
A cross between a community college and a Silicon Valley startup, Lee High’s new campus has a commons building and three academies, focusing on digital media, engineering and biomedicine. Students will have the chance to amass a variety of college credits, ranging from mainstays like math and English to rare courses like cell genetics.
Cristo Rey students first arrived July 12 for a three-week orientation to get ready not just for school but their new workplaces.
Roderick Adams said her daughter Rakia, 14, learned about work ethic and conduct. For instance, she spent one session learning just about proper phone etiquette.
“You can’t just send a text message like you do with your friends,” Adams said. “You’ve got to be professional.”
On Friday morning, they returned dressed in blue plaid Catholic school uniforms. They sat in the pews next door at St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church to celebrate Mass and officially dedicate their new school.
“What a fantastic opportunity. You have a great privilege,” said an ebullient Bishop Robert Muench, who presided over the Mass. “You have a lot of people pulling for you.”
“If this sounds like a pep talk, that’s what I had in mind,” Muench continued. “I want you be fired up! Not fired.”
Yes, students at Cristo Rey can get fired. If that happens, they get second chances with a different employer. Students terminated twice, however, not only lose their job, they are expelled from the school.
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Meleyah Murphy, 14, has been paired with Our Lady of the Lake health system, one of the sponsors. Murphy said she will be doing a variety of clerical work, including scanning and printing.
“I have my own desk,” she said with a smile. “I can put anything I want on it.”
Darell Lee Jr., 14, is looking forward to starting his work-study job at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. He was more excited, though, before he learned that the money he’ll make isn’t going right into his pocket.
“I know we were going to get paid,” Lee said. “I didn’t know it was all going to my education.”
Cristo Rey is leasing the former Redemptorist High School as its home. The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge provoked controversy in May 2015 when it closed Redemptorist, a north Baton Rouge institution for nearly 70 years.
Redemptorist’s enrollment, once topping 1,000 kids, had declined to about 200. The final blow came in fall 2014 when the state froze the high school out of its publicly funded private school voucher program due to low test scores.
Redemptorist supporters tried in vain to persuade the diocese to keep the school open, claiming the closure was made to free up a home for Cristo Rey, which already had announced plans to come to Baton Rouge. Cristo Rey denied it had any interest in locating at Redemptorist. But two months after Redemptorist closed, Cristo Rey officials reversed course and leased the school building, saying they were unhappy with the other places they had considered.
Redemptorist was one of many high schools in north Baton Rouge that have either closed or seen their enrollments shrink substantially. Cristo Rey is arguably part of a reversal of that trend. It is one of a handful of schools with high school grades opening in north Baton Rouge now and in the near future. Though it’s starting small, Cristo Rey hopes to expand to about 400 students by fall 2019.
Cristo Rey’s high schools seek low-income students, many behind their peers academically, who the organization thinks can handle the combination of white-collar work and a college prep curriculum. About 90 percent of Cristo Rey graduates elsewhere ended up enrolling in college.
Cristo Rey students in Baton Rouge have family incomes no greater than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, which works out to about $60,750 a year for a family of four. Students below that income threshold qualify for a mostly state-funded private school tuition rebate currently worth $4,662 a year. The net tuition is $1,400, though the school is providing additional financial aid on a case-by-case basis.
Friday’s dedication Mass attracted many of the new school’s supporters, including representatives of the nonprofit New Schools for Baton Rouge, which gave Cristo Rey money to come here.
“It took a lot of people, a lot of money and a lot of effort to make this possible,” Muench said Friday.
Lee High also required a lot of people, money and effort to get off the ground. And like Cristo Rey, it will require even more to become what its organizers hope it will be.
Robert E. Lee High School first opened as a south Baton Rouge neighborhood high school in 1959, named after the famed Civil War general. A half-century later, the campus at 1105 Lee Drive had fallen into disrepair. In 2008, voters, as part of the renewal of a 1-cent sale tax devoted to schools, agreed to tear down and rebuild Lee.
Since then, the school has gone on a tumultuous journey. It has closed, reopened, converted from a neighborhood school to a dedicated magnet school meant to rival Baton Rouge Magnet High, then moved 2 miles away to a temporary home while it was rebuilt.
Through all its changes, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, in part to please school alumni, stuck with the school’s increasingly controversial name. A request by parents this spring to shorten the school’s name and make the connection to the Civil War general less obvious provoked weeks of debate.
On June 16, the parish School Board, divided along racial lines, voted to excise the “Robert E” but to keep Lee High School as the school’s official name. A compromise of sorts, it left many unsatisfied.
Despite its grounded-in-the-past name, Lee High School is forward-thinking in design and quite different from the high school Baton Rouge has known for decades.
Pittsburgh native Bernard Taylor, who served as superintendent from 2012 to 2015, left a heavy imprint on the new Lee High. Taylor re-envisioned 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, opting instead for flexible and adaptive spaces that can change with the shifting demands of educators.
The task of fleshing out Taylor’s broad vision and figuring out what to do with these unusual spaces was left to Nan McCann. The longtime principal of Baton Rouge Magnet High was tapped in May 2014 to take over Lee as well.
McCann joined forces with Frank Neubrander, LSU math professor and co-director of the university’s Gordon A. Cain Center, which provides research and outreach on educational issues. NcCann and Neubrander pulled together a diverse team of East Baton Rouge Parish and LSU school leaders.
After several months of work, the team eventually settled on making “computational thinking and big data” Lee’s overarching theme, where every class will touch on elements of computer science and statistical analysis. To make this happen, Lee formed a partnership with LSU, which is offering an array of help. Lee in turn is becoming an “early college” for LSU, allowing Lee graduates to vault ahead of their peers if they decide to become a Tiger.
Throughout, McCann assembled a team of educators to bring this theme to life. She could not hire teachers from other schools in the parish; she had to recruit from outside the school system.
Neubrander said he’s impressed with what she’s managed to do.
“What Nan has assembled there is a really remarkable faculty,” he said. “It goes through all departments.”
One of the school’s linchpins is computer programming. Consequently, every Lee student will have to learn coding.
“It’s universal between all three academies,” said LSU research associate Vanessa Begat, who is doubling as Lee’s lead engineering teacher. “You can apply it to any discipline.”
All Lee High students have take-home laptops, and Wi-Fi access points abound, meaning good reception all the way to a walking track that borders the 26-acre campus. A new AT&T cellphone tower, disguised to look like a pine tree — right down to a fake tree trunk — helps as well. Teachers will all use interactive, electronic whiteboards. With a few exceptions, textbooks are all electronic.
Students visited July 28 and 29 to pick up their schedules and locate their classes. Nearly half of them, more than 360 students, are ninth-graders. “We’re set for our ninth-graders,” McCann said.
The upper grades are less developed. McCann’s team is still creating courses in digital media, engineering and biomedicine for those grades. Some sequences are further along. For instance, Begat is well along spearheading the development of the pre-college engineering course.
The least developed sequence is biomedicine. McCann had hired a lead teacher for this area who left for another job. To complete the biomedicine sequence, McCann has persuaded Suzy Sonnier, executive director of the Baton Rouge Health District, to form a working group of about 10 health professionals.
There’s another prominent unfinished area at the new Lee: wow spaces. That’s the name architects gave to massive three-story atriums located at the entrance of each of the three academies. They are meant to be sandboxes for large creative projects.
Taylor, the former superintendent, wanted corporate partnerships to finance the outfitting of these wow spaces. The schools system’s charitable foundation, the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System, was tasked to strike those partnerships but has thus far been unsuccessful.
Adonica Duggan, a spokeswoman for the school system, said many potential donors visited the spaces last summer and fall, but none ended up signing on.
Only one of the wow spaces has been partially outfitted. The school system’s magnet program was able to come up with almost $77,000 to purchase visual and sound equipment for the digital media space.
McCann hasn’t given up. The biomedical wow space, she said, is still in design, a task assigned to Sonnier’s team.
She said the plan for the engineering space is to create a “fabrication lab” filled with 3-D printers and other creative tools, and she said she still hopes to find private donors in time for the 2017-18 school year.