Denham Springs High cuts ribbon for STEM center; central office, board members already looking at expansion
DENHAM SPRINGS - Three hundred students had already begun taking Science & Technology classes at the location, which was once Southside Elementary, and they had been doing so for more than 60 days.
So the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Denham Springs High STEM and Robotics Center held on Wednesday, Oct. 9, focused on something different — the future, which was a perfect fit for the theme of the building.
According to Congressman Garret Graves, who spoke at the event and was referred to as "integral" to the school system's recovery, the STEM center was a testament to the school's ability to adapt and always consider the students they teach.
"You're teaching skills that these kids can use in the future," Graves said. "There are jobs coming that no one can even consider, even fathom, and a place like this leads the way."
Graves stared at a quote on the wall as he entered, which is surrounded by pictures of the flood.
He repeated it to the group.
“Sometimes innovative ideas arise from devastation when you have the right attitude, creativity, and leadership,” he said.
Superintendent Joe Murphy, Assistant Superintendent Jody Purvis, and School Board President Buddy Mincey all gave a similar speech — this was a result of vision and team work, but it was also just the beginning.
Mincey gestured outside the conference room, where the speeches were given, to the large amount of space left after the demolition of the old Southside Elementary main campus.
"This is a great start," Mincey mused, "but I see a lot of space out there (available for expansion)."
Purvis agreed, alerting the crowd that in just year one and with only four course offerings, over 300 students had signed up. Purvis gave credit to the high school's counseling staff, for guiding students to the STEM center, and the director's ability to pull quality teachers to direct interesting courses.
At the STEM center's grand opening in August, directors were excited to discuss who will be teaching the 300 or so students in grades 9-12. The STEM Center currently employs three certified teachers and one LSU extern who is working on his doctorate degree.
Under Daniel Eiland, who was the 2015 East Baton Rouge Teacher of the Year and 2011 Gifted Teacher of the Year, students will study majors within LSU’s College of Engineering, including biological engineering, civil/environmental engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.
Eiland will also serve as the coach for the First Robotics Competition.
Under Johnny Lombardi, who worked for six years on both sides of the camera for WAFB, students will learn the basics of digital storytelling such as photography, audio, video, coding, journalism, social media and digital literacy. Lombardi will work closely with Anthony Marasco, an internationally-recognized composer and sound artist who will manage the computer lab.
Under Chris Thorne, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UNC-Greensboro and is a Level 1 Actuary, students will be introduced to the basic ideas of computational thinking and its applications to problem-solving in STEM fields. One of Thorne’s first assignments was for students to create a website with biographies about themselves.
STEM Center Director Michael Simmons said all four teachers were “hand-picked,” and he’s excited for what students will be able to learn from them.
“You can come in with all the 21st-century classroom furniture or technology you want, but it’s all for naught if it’s not delivered correctly,” Simmons said. “[The teachers we have] know exactly what they’re doing, and the industry expertise they have is where the students really win.”
The STEM center was made available by the school system combining Southside Junior High and Elementary campuses into one mega site, after both were deemed "substantially damaged" by FEMA and slated for demolition.
After that, the school board's Denham Springs members approached the central office and asked, "What do you want to do with the two buildings we still have?"
Classrooms were added in 2016, just before the flood, and received minor damage. The classrooms and a cafeteria, as well as a multipurpose building added a few years before, survived the flood due to having been built up nearly 6 feet off the ground.
School board members wanted to expand its career and technical (CTE) offerings, and the Livingston Parish Schools central office countered with a STEM-focused curriculum.