After months of behind-the-scenes development, the Louisiana Department of Education announced Thursday that it is creating a special “Baton Rouge Achievement Zone” aimed at turning around low-performing public schools in north Baton Rouge.
The idea, first floated last fall by John White, now state superintendent of education, has been to create a New Orleans-style special zone in Baton Rouge made up mostly of charter schools — public schools run privately.
The fast growth in test scores in some New Orleans charter schools has persuaded state leaders that the charter approach represent the best turnaround strategy for struggling traditional public schools elsewhere in the state.
Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, or RSD, named nine north Baton Rouge schools that will be part of the zone during the 2012-13 school year during a news conference on Thursday.
Standing in the library of Capitol High School, Dobard was flanked by business and community leaders from 12 different entities who have pledged to help schools in the proposed zone. Entergy got top billing Thursday among the partners.
Few specifics were announced about how much money or what specific services these partners will provide. State leaders have said as many as 20 to 30 schools may eventually participate in the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone.
“We’re not all the way there as far as a fully fleshed, all-out plan,” Dobard said. “It’s organic.”
Six of the nine schools in the new Achievement Zone could be converted into charter schools as early as fall 2013, and the other three could follow in fall 2014, as long as the state finds high-quality charter operators, Dobard said.
A new group, New Schools for Baton Rouge, led by former RSD Deputy Superintendent Chris Meyer, is trying to line up potential charter management groups to apply to run Achievement Zone schools. The group is also trying to raise money for support services for these schools.
After the news conference, Dobard outlined the zone’s boundaries. It includes all of East Baton Rouge Parish north of Florida Boulevard, excluding the Baker, Central and Zachary school districts. The zone also leaves out a sliver of the parish east of North Sherwood Forest Boulevard and south of Greenwell Springs Road.
Dobard said the boundaries could shift.
“I would be open to any school that would be willing to be a part of it,” he said.
Dobard has invited the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which operates many of the schools RSD would like to join the zone, to participate.
Dobard said the parish school system would have to agree to convert some of its lower-performing schools into charter or charter-like schools. The key is those schools would need to give their principals greater autonomy over their budgets and personnel, and they would need to receive up to 90 percent of their per-pupil funding, he said.
Interim Superintendent Carlos Sam, who attended the news conference, said the school system will continue to look at the Achievement Zone as it develops.
He noted that a proposed strategic plan for the school system includes calls for more principal autonomy and school-based budgeting.
“We hope that the partners involved in this will be open to our plan as well,” Sam said.
The parish school system currently runs 12 schools rated F under the state’s new letter-based grading system. Another 17 schools are in “academic warning,” meaning they need to achieve a school performance score of at least 75 to avoid earning Fs, and making them targets for potential state takeover and forced placement in the Achievement Zone. They collectively represent about one-third of all schools in the school system.
Of these 29 schools, only nine are potential new targets for the zone in the near future: Delmont, Howell Park, Melrose, Merrrydale, Progress, Scotlandville and Winbourne elementaries; and Glen Oaks and Northeast high schools. The other 20 schools are either in the zone, independent schools, alternative schools, or fall outside of the zone’s boundaries.
Here are the schools in the Achievement Zone now and their status:
e_SBlt Dalton and Lanier elementaries, Glen Oaks Middle, and Capitol and Istrouma high schools all are to be run directly by RSD in 2012-13. Istrouma High School is being taken over and added to RSD. With about 670 students, Istrouma could become the largest RSD school in Baton Rouge. The campus also houses a separate, small independent high school called EBR Lab Academy, with about 225 students. EBR Lab’s fate, whether it’s closed or moved elsewhere, could be decided next week by the parish School Board.
e_SBlt Capitol Elementary, Capitol Middle and Park Elementary schools will remain under the control of the parish school system at least for the next year with renegotiated management contracts.
e_SBlt Prescott Middle School will be emptied of students, with seventh- and eighth-graders moving to Istrouma High, and sixth-graders moving to Dalton Elementary. Dobard said. The Prescott campus will be empty, free for the parish school system to use, though the details of that transfer are unclear.
The zone at present excludes two other charter schools that RSD oversees in Baton Rouge, Crestworth Learning Academy and Kenilworth Science and Technology School. Crestworth is an F school, while Kenilworth is in “academic warning.” Kenilworth is outside the zone’s boundaries.
Dobard said a lot of hard work has gone into creating the zone, but it’s just the beginning.
“We really have to deliver,” he said.
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