By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
The new high school building on Bienville Street has gleaming state-of-the-art labs, high-tech classrooms and media centers — everything needed for a first-rate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. There is something missing, however: the students.
School and city officials held an opening ceremony Dec. 9 for the New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School, or Sci High, building at 2011 Bienville St. in the Tulane-Gravier area. The three-story facility was ready to welcome the Sci High ninth- through 12th-graders on Jan. 11 and the teachers and administrators on Jan. 4.
“We planned it to be a special, to give them some excitement,” said Head of School Dr. Monique Cola. “Since we can’t do that now, it’s a little sad. We’ve got this wonderful school and we can’t bring the kids in the building.”
In response to the spike in COVID-19 cases, NOLA Public Schools on Monday moved the entire school system to distance learning until at least Jan. 21.
“We’re hoping that sometime this spring we’ll be back,” said Cola, who was still unpacking her office and enjoying Sci High’s “new school smell.”
When Sci High does open for in-person instruction, the students will take classes in the only New Orleans public school built specifically for STEM education. The campus, paid for with $27.5 million in post-Katrina FEMA money, has labs equipped for engineering, digital graphics, biomedical research and more. There are outdoor spaces designed for fabrication of large scale projects, for collaboration and for presentations.
The school’s governing board, the Advocates for Science & Mathematics Education, and its foundation have been raising money to furnish and equip the building. The Foundation for Science & Mathematics Education, a development board, executed a capital campaign, raising $1.1 million for specialized equipment. Students, for example, will be able to learn anatomy with an anatomage table, a 3-D interactive display that allows them to virtually dissect bodies, without taking a knife to a cadaver.
Even Sci High’s location — next to the biomedical corridor on the former Albert Wicker Elementary School site — is strategically STEM-oriented. Alliances in the district will help place students in summer internships and give them access to potential mentors, said Cola, who knows the district well from her 20 years as a medical researcher at Tulane School of Medicine.
Sci High’s 500 or so students are moving from a building Uptown, in the shadow of Lusher Middle School, that the school has been outgrowing. The new 130,000-square-foot building can accommodate 750 students, officials said.
Plans for the STEM building have been in the works since 2006, when the school went from a half-day to a full-time program and moved from the Delgado Community College campus to the former Henry W. Allen Elementary School on Loyola and Nashville.
Sci High was founded in 1993 to give specialized instruction to any New Orleans student interested in math and science. After Katrina, the Advocates board was granted a Type III charter by the Orleans Parish School Board.
“We’ve been around since before STEM was a buzz word,” Cola said. “We’ve had two generations as a center for science and math.”
The consistently B-rated school is open-enrollment. Part of the school’s mission to provide a rigorous curriculum for all students, even those whose educational background has been less than adequate. It recently boasted the highest ACT scores of any open-admission New Orleans high school, according to a NOLA Public Schools fact sheet on the school.
“Our students come from a range of backgrounds and abilities,” Cola said. “We get them in here and we support them.”
The school has a “learning lab” where students can get help with academic skills and with social and emotional skills. It also has a dual enrollment program to allow students to earn college credits while working on their high school diploma.
Some students are in college prep and others work on industry certifications, so they can move directly into a career when they graduate. Areas of study include medicine, engineering, computer science, construction and digital media.
“Our goal is build a science-literate citizenry,” Cola said. “Our mayor has talked about diversifying our economy. We’ve got to train these students to be able to that.”
The high schoolers participate in science fairs — this year’s included such topics as “The Mask v. America,” “COVID-19 and Unclean Air: Is It Dangerous for Asthma Carriers?” and “Are Your Hands Clean?” They take on paid summer internships to gain professional experience, connections and insights into their career choice — plus as much money as they would make at McDonald’s or Walmart. Some internships have led directly to a skilled job, Cola said, and others might just give students the valuable lesson that they don’t want to go into medicine or engineering after all.
Most of the Sci High teens come from New Orleans East, Gentilly or Algiers, Cola said, so the new more central location is a plus. About 70% are bussed to and from school. Now that they can increase enrollment, officials would like to attract more students from the Mid-City area.
Cola is also looking forward to interacting with her new neighbors. “When it’s safe to do so, we want to invite them over to see the school. We want them to know we’re the community school,” she said. “You don’t hear that much in New Orleans anymore.”
But mostly — after 15 years and tens of millions of dollars — she wants the students to be able to take advantage of their cutting-edge learning environment.
“I’m so excited for our students and what they’ll get here. They deserve this,” Cola said. “If we can just get them in the building …”
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at email@example.com.