DENHAM SPRINGS -- Hanging on one wall, just to the right of the secretary’s office, are four photographs that tell the same story.
Some show partially-ripped up flooring that had swollen up from the water that entered the building three years ago. Others show the tattered remains of books and notepads piled carelessly atop one another, their pages stained with water marks. Others show scattered desks that had been cast aside from the water that rose 4 feet on campus.
The photographs were taken following the Great Flood of 2016, which inundated the former Southside Elementary campus with so much water that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ultimately approved the demolition and replacement of the school.
But in between the photographs, in bold black print, is a quote that still gives Michael Simmons chills.
“Sometimes innovative ideas arise from devastation when you have the right attitude, creativity, and leadership,” it reads.
That was part of the message Simmons delivered to students on the first day of the 2019-20 school year, when the Livingston Parish Public Schools system officially unveiled its new STEM and Robotics Center.
The multi-purpose facility, made possible after plans were finalized to combine Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High schools into one mega-campus, will serve as a satellite campus for Denham Springs High School to enrich students' learning in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Inside the building, the next generation of learners will study topics such as video editing and processing, sound design, robotics and pre-engineering, computational thinking courses, and basic computer science and design. Students can also take courses in partnership with LSU, learning from experienced professionals who have worked extensively in their fields of study.
Students will come from Denham Springs High’s main campus for 90-minute blocks before returning to school.
The center includes an event space that will be available for the public and be able to sit more than 300. The center comes with a full kitchen that can be used for students in the Pro-Start catering program, and it will include flat-screen televisions, a camera, and audio equipment “for anything from dances to presentations” when all the work is complete.
But for Simmons, who was named the administrator of the STEM and Robotics Center last April, none of this would’ve been possible without the tragedy that seemed so unimaginable three years ago.
The funding plan approved by FEMA to rebuild three schools in Denham Springs after the August 2016 flood included relocation plans for Southside Elementary to Southside Junior High’s campus on Highway 16. However, the two buildings on Southside Elementary’s campus that were not damaged due to their higher elevation were able to be utilized for the STEM and Robotics Center.
In his welcome to students on Aug. 9, Simmons pointed at the photos that hung behind them in the conference center, urging them to remember what happened in order for them to pursue their academic goals.
“Without that devastation, we would not be able to do what we’re doing here,” Simmons said. “So even though something absolutely awful happened, we’re able to do this because of it. We ended up better off, and Southside Elementary will end up better off in a few years, too.”
“Y’all are making history,” Simmons told students in his welcome speech.
Located on Range Avenue less than a five-minute drive from Denham Springs High, the STEM and Robotics Center is the result of more than two years of planning, designing, and construction, LPPS Technology Director Carlos Williams said.
“Several hundred thousand dollars” went into the center’s conversion, coming from a combination of federal, state, and local funds, he added.
Speaking on the first day of school, Williams said he wasn’t sure how much attention the STEM Center will attract from students. He quickly found out.
“They’re actually past capacity already,” Williams said.
What made Williams and Simmons even more giddy with excitement on the first day of school was talking about 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, which will have its first event, the Red Stick Rumble, on Aug. 24 at Denham Springs High.
Under Johnny Lombardi, who worked for six years in front of and behind 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.
Simmons said all four teachers were “hand-picked” for the STEM Center, 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.”
In addition to learning about fields that interest them, Simmons said students will be able to work toward certifications in a plethora of areas to create even more opportunities for them after high school.
“We’ve offered AP classes at the high school, which is great if you’re going to college, but not everybody is going to college, so embedded in these pathways are certifications so that when students get out of high school, they can be hired and start making money right away,” Simmons said.
“That can be good whether you’re going straight to college or straight to the workforce.”
Simmons said plans are to expand the campus and its offerings in later years. Currently, only two buildings are being used on the 10-acre property.
“What you’re seeing today is just the tip of the iceberg,” Simmons said.