District breaks ground on PHS addition

Local leaders join Tangipahoa Parish School System officials to “break ground” on an eight-classroom addition at Ponchatoula High School on Monday morning. Standing, from left, are Ponchatoula Mayor Bob Zabbia; Rhonda Sheridan, executive assistant to the mayor; Councilwoman Brigette Hyde, of Tangipahoa Parish District 9; Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller; Rev. Andrew Jackson, Chief Equity Officer of TPSS; Sandra Bailey Simmons, school board member; Rose Dominguez, school board member; Superintendent Melissa Stilley; Dr. Anna Faye Caminita, principal of Ponchatoula High; Ron Genco, assistant superintendent; Toby Cortez, bond underwriter with Stifel; Bret Schnadelbach, chief financial officer of TPSS; Pierre Theriot Jr., principal architect of Holly & Smith Architects; Brooke Roberts, of Holly & Smith Architects; and Mike Johnson, of CM Combs Construction.

Fifteen pairs of shoes pushed down on golden painted shovels, driving the tips into the ground at Ponchatoula High.

Local leaders followed through with their dig, slightly lifting up the shovels slightly and letting the dirt fall back to the ground.

This groundbreaking of an eight classroom addition on Ponchatoula High’s campus, held Monday morning and attended by local leaders, marks the official commencement of construction on Phase 1 of Tangipahoa Parish School System’s multi-school facility improvement projects.

Superintendent Melissa Stilley described the event kicking off this first phase of projects as a historic day during a historic time for Tangipahoa Parish.

“We’re starting today with the first of our Phase 1 projects, which is about $27 million worth of projects of new construction of schools across our parish that will impact many of our schools, and the first one is right here in the swamp of Ponchatoula at Ponchatoula High School,” she said.

District officials will gather again next week to celebrate the groundbreaking of Loranger High’s new field house, which is another of the Phase 1 projects.

Stilley stressed that it has been a team effort of everyone working together to make progress happen.

The school system experienced three major shifts over the past couple years: the granting of provisional unitary (desegregation) status in the class action lawsuit; passage of a tax for competitive salaries – the first districtwide half-penny sales tax to pass in 40 years; and $27 million worth of building projects across the parish without any additional revenue for the projects, she said.

“I think to be able to tighten our belt and look at additional brick and mortar classrooms without asking the public for additional monies is something we can all be proud of,” she said. “Not just one classroom or two classrooms but a bunch.”

Dr. Anna Faye Caminita, principal of Ponchatoula High, plans to use the additional space on her campus to create a true ninth grade academy at the school.

“Right now, we have a majority of our ninth grade classes together,” she said. “This will allow us to actually section and have a ninth grade academy, and also offer more CTE (career and technical education) courses for kids to have credentials and more advanced placement.”

The addition will also allow the school to house its growing enrollment.

“As you look up and down Highway 22, there are subdivisions going up everywhere, so I anticipate having a larger number of students here in the Green Wave family,” she said.

Ponchatoula High currently has around 2,200 students.

“The 2020 Census has showed that Ponchatoula has increased in population by a little over 19 percent, and with the population growth comes the need for schools and other facilities,” said Mayor Bob Zabbia.

In addition, he added that most of the parish’s growth is east of Ponchatoula, which affects Ponchatoula High, as well as Ponchatoula Junior High, the elementary schools and Champ Cooper school.

“This is an important part of the school board to fill the gap,” he said.

Rev. Andrew Jackson, chief equity officer of Tangipahoa Parish School System, said this project is much needed for the school’s current and anticipated growing student population, as well as for those students who wish to transfer to the school to take advantage of what it offers.

As far as the deseg case is concerned, we have the majority-to-minority, and this would allow us to continue to ensure that our children, any children, will be able to attend this school,” he said.

“It’s all about equity now,” he said.

“We have to make sure that every child has an opportunity to be at the school that they want to be at because there’s some courses that Ponchatoula High is offering that Hammond High might not be offering and other high schools,” he said. “So what we have to do is make sure that we just continue to provide, and in doing so, we can continue to make sure that all of our children are educated.”

Moving forward

After its first phase, the school district already has plans for a Phase 2 to improve more facilities on school campuses across the parish.

School board members recently agreed to buy 40 acres in Loranger for Phase 2 projects. Loranger has around 33 portable buildings on its high school middle school and elementary school campuses, Superintendent Melissa Stilley said.

No land is available in Loranger for expanding and building permanent classrooms, so securing that 40 acres was critical, she said.

School officials have given a down payment and are in the process of title searches to clear the property for purchase.

“When you see movement happening and you see positive things happening now for children it’s always a good day,” Stilley said. “We’re super excited to see all these things come to pass.”

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