I was very encouraged when reading a recent article by O. Chip Robinson in the Leesville Daily Leader and to learn that Vernon Parish students were performing “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

LHS Choir and Theater Director Jared Prewitt explained that students in elementary, junior, and high schools from throughout the parish were practicing and rehearsing since December for the March production.

“If we don’t do it, no one will,” said Director Prewitt.  “There is no other local theater in Vernon Parish so this is their one and only opportunity to exercise those gifts. For a lot of these kids, this is their opportunity to shine. It is extremely important for those students in small rural communities be exposed to great art of all kinds, including great theater.”

Reading this article immediately reminded me of a program held forty years ago.

In the summers of 1977 and 1978, gifted and academically oriented 8th and 9th-grade students from all Vernon Parish schools were selected to attend a Summer Institute held on the Leesville High School campus. Parents provided the transportation.  So attractive was this unique opportunity, we had very few, if any, absentees.

The program was called LEEP II, the brainchild of Vernon Parish Superintendent Creighton Owen, Dr. Billie McRae, Johnnie Mae Palmer, along with other local leading educational leaders, and it was a huge success.

Often times, unfortunately, after all these years, “middle” school students still do not have the unique educational opportunities that are afforded to high school and elementary level students.

The students chose from three options:

1.  Math-Science:  team-taught by John Y. Dempsey and  Curtis Brazil.

2.  Humanities-Art:  team-taught by Gordie Holt and Barney Wilson

3.  Music –Social studies:  team-taught by Marjorie Anderson (1977), Mary Thompson (1978), and Billy Crawford   

Lessie Fowler served as Institute Librarian and Bryant Flower was Project Director.

As I searched the Vernon Parish Library’s Digital files of the Leesville Leader, I found two articles related to this LEEP II program, June 21, 1977 and June 12, 1978. The June 12 article had an incomplete list of students:

Robert Rachell , Kathie Bryant, Billy Anderson, Mimi Lawrence, Kooter Singleton, Patti Moore, Susan Fugitt , Becky Tilley, Karen Ochoa, Kim Grant, Linda Monk, DeAnn Parker, Michelle Burgess, Ruth Ford, Cheryl, Vicky Gage, Jim Tucker, Liz Borrero, Melanie Hope, Carl Simon , Patrick Pilola, Pam Boginao , Charles Owen and Tracy Bedell.

The Field Trip at the end of the 1977 session was to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Carolyn Leach Huntoon, a 1958 graduate of Leesville High School, served as the center’s Director of Space and Life Sciences where she managed and directed medical research and operations for all manned space flight missions for life science experiments.

Later she was appointed Director of the Johnson Space Center.

Students and faculty members were amazed to learn about the complexity and advancement of sending humans into outer space.

The following summer the field trip was to the R.W. Norton Art Gallery-Shreveport, LA.

Author’s notes: If you attended one of these summer institutes, please send me your memories of the program-and/or help identify a complete list of students. billyecrawford@gmail.com