DENHAM SPRINGS -- Gail DeLee had tears in her eyes as she walked through the building.
Nearly five years earlier, she and the rest of the Denham Springs Elementary family were forced from their campus near the corner of Centerville Street and Range Avenue, a result of historic flooding that swept through the parish Aug. 12-13, 2016.
The flood forced the postponement of school operations parish-wide until mid-September as district leaders scrambled to assess damage and make any necessary modifications. In the end, it was determined that three schools — including DeLee’s — suffered so much damage they’d have to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.
Nearly five years later, work is ongoing at Denham Springs Elementary, which is being rebuilt on the same grounds as the prior school site. DeLee and her staff were allowed to walk through the campus earlier this summer, giving them a glimpse of their new school home.
“I had tears in my eyes,” DeLee said. “It was so exciting. Until you see it, it doesn’t set in, the beauty of it. Now that it has walls and sound boards, it’s just beautiful. Our kids are going to love it.”
Though the full-fledged celebration will have to wait, the hope is that it won’t wait much longer.
Despite the most fervent hopes of district and school leaders, construction on the new Denham Springs Elementary was unable to wrap up in time for the 2021-22 school year, its goal from the time ground broke in October 2019.
Construction on the site has faced a plethora of obstacles over the last year, including a record-breaking hurricane season, a historic ice storm, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The hope now, according to Superintendent Joe Murphy, is for work on the new campus to be completed sometime this fall, allowing for a possible move-in over the winter break or at the start of the second semester.
Murphy, who has been involved with the project from its start, said he spoke with the architect earlier this week and was told, “We’re about 86 percent complete on that campus right now.”
“That 86 percent is good, but that last 14 percent we’ll have to work hard to get,” Murphy said. “But it is those small finishing touches.”
When it is completed, the new Denham Springs Elementary is expected to be a jewel among the parish’s offerings, a model of modern learning.
“When you step through the doors though, what we want you to see is a 21st century learning space for our kids,” Murphy said. “The principal and the School Board members have worked really hard to ensure that our children have what they need when they step into that space.”
When the doors officially open, Denham Springs Elementary students will learn in a two-story, 80,000-square-foot facility, up from the 55,000 square feet in the now-demolished buildings. The campus will be the district’s first two-story elementary school.
The elementary school will continue to rest on the original site of Denham Springs High School, an expansion from the community’s first schoolhouse on River Road. That high school was destroyed by a fire in January 1950 and later rebuilt two blocks north at its current location.
After the high school relocated, the grounds were converted to the elementary campus until the Great Flood of 2016, when the school district saw damage to at least 15 campuses that led to a month-long postponement of operations. When they resumed, students from all but three campuses were able to report back to their regular schools.
In the case of Denham Springs Elementary, students were forced to platoon at Eastside, Freshwater, and Northside elementary schools for the duration of the first semester. They later moved to their temporary campus next to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Hatchell Lane in February 2017, where they’ve been ever since.
The other two schools, Southside Junior High and Southside Elementary, currently occupy temporary facilities on the grounds of Juban Parc Junior High and Juban Parc Elementary, respectively.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ultimately declared all three schools to be “substantially damaged,” meaning 50 percent of the structure’s value was damaged. Under FEMA guidelines, all three schools had to be ripped down and rebuilt.
But in a video last year, Murphy said school leaders didn’t want to just “rebuild” the schools. They wanted to make them better than before.
“We want to expand their capacity and make them more suited to 21st century learning,” he said.
That goal is well underway.
Steel is up at the Southside-mega campus, a $45 million, state-of-the-art K-8 school site that will span 185,000 square feet. Murphy said he doesn’t think they will get all the steel up until “probably September.” Leaders hope that the project will be complete by the start of the 2022-23 school year.
“It’s going to be huge,” Murphy said of the Southside campus, which broke ground in September 2020.
At Denham Springs Elementary, the majority of the roughly $15 million project that remains pertains to the interior. When construction is complete, new furniture and equipment will be arranged in its classrooms and other spaces.
DeLee said they have already mapped out where different grade levels will be located, and all that will have to be transferred from the current site are teacher and student materials.
Moving those items shouldn’t be a problem, DeLee said.
“After the flood, we had to move to three different campuses in a two-day period and then to here over a weekend,” she recalled. “We learned how to move pretty quickly.”
Murphy said the district is hoping to do a “a soft opening” when construction is finished to allow students, families, and the community to see the school before it officially opens.
“It’s spectacular,” Murphy said. “We’re really looking forward to it. And it is going to be an awesome educational space for our children there at Denham Elementary.”
DeLee said she can’t wait to see the students’ excitement when they enter their new campus, particularly that of one student who last year gave her regular reports on the building’s progress. The young student would pass by construction crews every day on her way to school, and she’d march straight to DeLee to let her know how the building was shaping up.
“I can’t wait to hear what she says now,” DeLee said.