A New High School Experience in Baton Rouge

Sunlight beams through the massive windows onto the bright modern chairs and triangular desks that are configured in collaborative learning arrangements. This room is ready and waiting for August 10 when its new residents, the Lee Magnet High students, will take their seats. And the students will be “amazed and blown away,” according to associate and site principal, Sharon Sims.

Baton Rouge has never seen a school like the new Lee Magnet High School. The campus itself looks like a film set of a community college. Five large, modern buildings sprawl across the grounds and form the unique school: the two connected Administrative Buildings, the Digital Arts Academy, the Bioscience Academy, and the Engineering Academy. An elevated walkway connects the two Administrative Buildings which house the administrative offices, the gym, the dining hall, a walking track, a workout room, art and music classes, and a black box theater that opens out into an amphitheater.

Quite a lot has changed in Baton Rouge from 1959 to 2016, and this new campus illustrates that. Robert E. Lee High School opened on Lee Drive in 1959 and was a well known school for 50 years. The original campus closed in 2009. The reopened school has been stationed at the Valley Park campus since 2012, but the students and teachers are getting an upgrade this fall, a $54.7 million upgrade in fact. All that remains of the original campus is a Louisiana oak tree and a canal for rainwater.

“What sets our school apart is that we have more collaboration and technology. We have created a family culture where we all can collaborate and grow together,” Sharon Sims declares, beaming with pride. She and Principal Nannette McCann have spent the last two years dedicating themselves to this project and the transition from Valley Park to this haven of education.

The new open campus features a design focused on collaborative and project-based learning. Each academy is filled with brainstorming alcoves, common areas, lecture spaces, and classrooms. The campus is arranged to foster student independence. The dining hall has multiple seating areas including a beautiful set of maple stadium stairs perfect for teenagers to group and lunch together. The seating area overflows into the lush courtyard dotted with tables and chairs. Students can also eat in any of the academies’ common areas, which have healthy vending machines and microwaves. Each academy is filled with sunlight and movable furniture that inspires independence and discussion. Principal Sims comments on the design, “Everything is laid out beautifully for them to relax and enjoy high school.”

Though the atmosphere does feel relaxing, great work will be done here as well. The school offers 17 different dual enrollment classes with direct support from LSU professors that will give students both Lee Magnet High and LSU credit. The three academies present a unique way of schooling as well. Every freshman takes an introductory survey course on digital arts, bioscience, and engineering. In their sophomore year, they choose which academy they will pursue.

Each academy features a “Wow” space, a huge room with versatile functions: a 3-D printer in the Engineering Academy, a possible news studio in the Digital Arts Academy, and a possible health professional training hub in the Bioscience Academy. The Wow rooms will give students a place to show off their projects and work together to solve problems. The school vibrates with the brilliant discoveries that are to come.

Another remarkable aspect of the new school is the absence of lockers. Every student has a laptop, and all textbooks are ebooks installed on their laptops. Help Desks are in each academy to meet the needs of the laptops. These areas will double as technology support stations and school stores to be run by students from the customer service and young entrepreneur classes. Opportunities to shine are everywhere on this breathtaking campus.

Though the students don’t have textbooks, there are some books on campus! Although the campus was not designed to house a library, the administration has used some space creatively and arranged a self-checkout library where the students will check out books at a kiosk with their IDs. The library space is illuminated with light in every corner. A lecture room adjoins the library with sliding glass panels that double as dry erase boards. The campus is full of surprises like these, function disguised as decor.

Not only are lockers absent, but so are traditional teacher classrooms. Classrooms and lecture spaces are glass paneled, to promote a learning environment of openness and accountability. Because teachers share different classrooms for their courses, they have office hours in their communal offices called Learning Coach Rooms. This setup mirrors a collegiate environment just like the layout of the campus.

You may be wondering how all of this freedom will be managed. After all, there will still be teenagers here, right? Each academy has a designated “academy principal,” a teacher with administrative duties in that specific building. The school also has 155 cameras placed around the campus for monitoring behavior, but Principal Sims is expecting few disruptions in this multi-faceted learning environment. The students will be too busy learning and playing! Lee Magnet High offers basketball, tennis, soccer, and volleyball as well as over 30 clubs. Sims describes their vision, “We are creating a culture of strong academic programs but cultivating the social aspect of high school as well.”

Although the new Lee Magnet High School is a one of a kind in our city and parish, Principal Sims says her “dream is for all schools to be like this.” ■

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28 Apr 2017

By Joy Holden

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