Seventh Ward Elementary classroom expansion

Seventh Ward Elementary students in Callie Gant’s class complete workbooks following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school’s new classroom building on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

DENHAM SPRINGS -- School Board member Cecil Harris called Seventh Ward Elementary the district’s “best kept secret” over the years.

But as the 350-student elementary school located along Highway 16 just south of Denham Springs continues to grow, that may no longer be the case.

In fact, Harris is certain it’s not.

“I got news for you,” Harris told a few dozen people gathered at the back of campus on a picturesque morning. “The secret’s out.”

And now, another secret is, too.

On Tuesday, Livingston Parish school leaders, elected officials, and members of the Seventh Ward Elementary family gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the school’s official unveiling of its new classroom expansion.

The new addition includes four classrooms, restroom facilities, and storage, which came at a price tag of roughly $800,000. Construction started in late March but was completed in time for the start of the 2011-22 school year, though officials elected to wait before welcoming the public to view the new building.

Seventh Ward Principal Laura Dunlap, who is in her third year at the helm, spoke during the ceremony, as well as Harris and Livingston Parish Public Schools Superintendent Joe Murphy. Other School Board members were present, as well as Rep. Buddy Mincey, Jr., who served on the school board before moving to the state capitol.

In addition, former Seventh Ward teachers and principals were on hand to see the new facility, which is located at the back of campus near the school’s gym. The building is equipped with modern technology and wireless capability for students to use laptops and engage in internet-based activities.

Dunlap thanked everyone who came to the ceremony and all those who have been a part of the school’s family through the years. She singled out the former teachers and principals on hand, calling them “our biggest cheerleaders.”

“People ask me what makes Seventh Ward such a special place to be, and it’s because of the community and the support that we have from all of the people here,” she said. “When you become a principal here, you are never alone because these ladies mentor you and are here for you every step of the way. That’s what makes our little school so special.”

The school’s expansion was first discussed years ago, Dunlap said, but picked up steam recently as Livingston Parish — and specifically the Denham Springs area — continues to experience rapid growth. Harris, who represents portions of Denham Springs along with School Board members Jan Benton and Bradley Harris, told those in attendance that the area has grown by 10,000 students since the last census.

As the area grows, so does Seventh Ward. Dunlap said the school added Pre-K last year as well as another kindergarten class the year before. Meanwhile, recent developments sprouting up in the area has resulted in more students of all ages coming to the school that covers Pre-K through fifth grade.

“We were just seeing that growth and starting to outgrow the available space that we had,” Dunlap said, “so the board members came out and said, ‘We can either make a short-term fix or a long-term fix.’ And they opted for the long-term.”

Dunlap said the new addition provides ample space to allow for “a variety of project-based learning, flexible seating and the ability to accommodate our current and future growth.” Third-graders currently house the new building, allowing their previous space to be filled by Pre-K and kindergarten students.

“And they have it full,” Dunlap said.

Along with providing more space for students, Dunlap said it was important the building have “lots of outlets and lots of good wifi.”

“Everything the teachers are doing, they’re using laptops and interactive panels that can be moved around anywhere,” she said. “And third-grade is a great age for this because they start to become independent with those things and they can do more in Google Classroom on their own.”

While speaking during the ceremony, Murphy called it “a great day to be involved with Livingston Parish Public Schools” and rattled off some of the other major projects going on in the district.

Construction of the new two-story Denham Springs Elementary is near completion and expected to be ready for the start of the second semester. Meanwhile on Pete’s Highway, crews continue to make progress on the new Southside “mega campus,” which will house both Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High on a 185,000-square-foot campus.

All three schools were wrecked during the Great Flood of 2016.

Additionally, school leaders are hoping to build new schools in Albany and Walker as those parts of the parish also experience rapid population growth. A new band room is being built at French Settlement High, as well as a new cafeteria at Springfield High. There are also ongoing improvements being made in the Live Oak area.

“Anybody that tells you Livingston Parish Public Schools is in decline, they are absolutely wrong,” Murphy said. “Livingston Parish Public Schools is going places we’ve never been before, and we are proud of that.”

Those in attendance were allowed to tour the new facility following the ceremony. Some checked out artwork students had made describing their feelings about the building. But after a walk-through, the third-graders got back to work under teachers Callie Gant and Kayla Wales.

Dunlap said the teachers “love the new rooms,” though she noted one issue, albeit a small one.

“It is quite a hike to the new building from the front, so anyone who wants to give us a golf cart, we will gladly accept,” she said with a laugh.

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