The Little Rock School District's new Southwest Magnet High School -- which is about 98% complete and just days away from the scheduled start of classes -- is "a game changer" for students in the southwest section of the state's capital city, Principal Marvin Burton said Thursday.
The mammoth three-story, 400,000-plus-square-foot structure at 9715 Mabelvale Pike is the district's first newly constructed high school since the opening of Parkview High 52 years ago in 1968.
Burton called the home of the Gryphons -- with its architectural features, its college and career academies and its electric lime green and boysenberry purple-trimmed athletic facilities -- the fruition of long-deferred dreams.
Those dreams, however, didn't include a simultaneous global pandemic of the highly contagious and potentially fatal novel coronavirus.
But Burton is taking the threat in stride.
"It will be a little different and a little challenging," he said at different points Thursday afternoon.
"We have to think creatively."
"We are preparing daily for it."
The school, with a pricetag that exceeded $100 million and a student capacity of 2,250, has a staff of 141 to date. The projected enrollment for this new year is 1,826, with the largest class being ninth-graders at 647. Burton anticipates that as many as 500 of his student body will be Hispanic and he has bilingual instructors and staff to assist with language differences.
As of Thursday, about 1,200 families, had responded to the district's survey asking if Southwest students will attend classes in person or virtually -- as a result of the disease threat -- at the anticipated Aug. 24 start of the school year. The division is about 50-50 among the respondents, Burton said. Those who do not respond to the survey by the end of this week will be assigned to in-school instruction.
Southwest High's larger-than-state-required classrooms are each equipped with one or more large "smart monitors" that will make it possible for the students logged on to computer devices at home to participate in classes with their peers on site.
"It's going to be like they are sitting right here," Burton said of the online students who will be able to interact with their teachers and peers in the courses.
That's just one of the adjustments for the pandemic, he said.
As many as 2,200 Chromebook computers are due to arrive at the school today for distribution for student use at school and at home, he said. The school's internet service has been enhanced to serve the area outside the school.
Teachers and students can make use of the school's multiple common spaces -- four "collaboration" stairways with electronic device charging stations and various lounge areas, large enough to accomplish physical distancing.
There will be three lunch periods in the 900-seat, two-story high cafeteria -- with its mix of booths as well as rectangular, round and cafe tables -- as a way to promote physical distancing among students at meal time.
Lockers that line the main hallways won't be used this year to avoid the congregating of students.
One enclosed bay of the school's expansive multi-room health clinic area is reserved for isolating students and adults who show symptoms of covid-19.
The school includes a 1,200-seat auditorium, with orchestra pit, designed by the same company that did the recent redesign of Little Rock's Robinson Music Center, Burton also said.
As for what the first production might be in the theater, Burton said he didn't know but there would be some -- just as there will be pep assemblies -- which student viewers may be watching not from the auditorium and arena seats but from other rooms via technology.
Already, the spirit group tryouts were held virtually, he said.
Burton on Thursday led a tour of community leaders through the school, showcasing the auditorium, the tw0-level library media center that overlooks the cafeteria, and the 16 science classrooms -- some of which have lab tables that can be heightened and lowered electronically to accommodate standing and sitting students.
Also featured on the tour were the art rooms, the computer labs, the space for a fully operating bank, and the engineering and robotics rooms -- with its boxing-ring like area for robotics competition.
The school's sports arena with its one-of-a-kind scoreboard, the practice gym, the 4,000-seat football/soccer field, the two-story athletic complex with weight and training room, the hospitality suites, the tailgating area, the separate track, the tennis courts and baseball field are also part of the campus.
"This is amazing," Jeff Wood, chairman of the district's Community Advisory Board, told Burton. "Every kid and every parent in this city should be knocking the doors down to get in here. This is going to be a special experience."
"I think it is awesome," Keith Jackson, retired National Football League player and founder of Little Rock's Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids teenager support organization, said at the end of the tour.
"I really believe we should have about four more of these," Jackson said. "When you give kids something new to get excited about, it sparks their ability to want to learn. It seems like it does for teachers, too. They want to be here. This is going to prove what we have been saying for a long time. If you build it, they will come."
The new school replaces McClellan High, which opened in 1965, and J.A. Fair High, which opened in 1982. Both of those schools were constructed by the neighboring Pulaski County Special School District before the Little Rock district annexed them in 1987 as a result of a federal court desegregation order.
Programatically, the new school will feature a ninth-grade Freshman Academy, where they will be introduced to college and career academies. The Southwest academies are: Business and Computer Science; Engineering, Aerospace and Health Sciences; and Leadership, Hospitality and Tourism.
Burton, a former McClellan principal and most recently the district's deputy superintendent, has served as point man on the high school project for four or more years.
On Thursday he thanked taxpayers for enabling the district to build what he said was a greatly needed facility for students to achieve their aspirations in life.
"We welcome all students," he said. "It was designed for students. We wanted to make sure we could provide the best educational opportunities possible for our students."