Ryan Greene has three children, all 5 years old and younger, and he wishes he had more school options.
“I live right around the corner,” Greene told an audience of about 50 people gathered in the auditorium Tuesday night at Magnolia Woods Elementary. “I would love for my kids to just go down the street to school here. You know that Mayberry feel.”
Magnolia Woods has a lot of children who choose to attend there already, more than 500 of them, but few of them live in that subdivision of the same name, located along Highland Road.
To broaden the appeal of this school and others, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is considering creating new magnet programs at Magnolia Woods and three other public schools in Baton Rouge.
“It’s a no brainer to me,” Greene said, noting the school’s location and that there are no magnet programs south of Perkins Road.
“I’m very excited about potentially getting this program,” Principal Donna Wallette said. “I promise you I will give it 100 percent.”
Magnet programs, common in Baton Rouge for decades, began as a desegregation tool. They are attractive, specialized programs, usually located in inner-city schools, that try to generate enough appeal to draw together students from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
“We have a market of students that is untapped,” Superintendent Bernard Taylor told the audience Tuesday. “We have to be more entrepreneurial than we’ve ever been.”
Tuesday night was the second of four meetings at these schools to help get ideas for a multimillion-dollar federal grant the school system plans to apply for in 2013. A third meeting is planned at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Broadmoor Middle, and a final meeting is planned for Sept. 27 at Polk Elementary at 5:30 p.m. The school system held a similar planning meeting for the newly opened Lee High in June.
If the school system wins the Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant, it will bring as much as $4 million a year. But the award announcement is not expected until fall 2013, likely delaying its use until fall 2014.
The money could be critical in a school system that has undergone budget cuts the past few years and is anticipating more this coming year and next.
“If we don’t get the grant, it doesn’t mean we won’t move forward,” Taylor said. “We’re looking to expand our offerings throughout the parish.”
Taylor encouraged the audience to offer its thoughts on Magnolia Woods.
“We want you to think broadly and to think creatively,” he said.
The audience then broke into four groups and wrote down their vision of a new magnet program at Magnolia Woods, what kind of theme it might offer, what kind of admission criteria it might require and which community businesses and groups might be willing to serve as partners.
Several groups mentioned interest in creating a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, program, perhaps as a feeder to nearby Glasgow Middle School, but a focus on foreign languages, the arts, project-based learning and Montessori programs also were mentioned.
The federal grant discourages using test scores and grade-point averages as admission criteria for proposed magnet programs, but the audience Tuesday suggested alternatives, including portfolios of student work, interviews and reference letters.
“If parents go to the trouble of getting a letter of recommendation, those parents are going to be more involved,” said Angela Rothermel, a fifth-grade teacher at Magnolia Woods.
Ted Firnberg, who volunteers to read with children at the elementary school and went there in the early 1970s, said quality teaching will be the biggest draw for the school.
“We don’t need to build a Taj Mahal for it to be attractive,” Firnberg said.
The four identified schools are planning to take the input from these planning meetings and form school committees to flesh them out.
The school system has already hired consultant David Lerch, of Savannah, Ga., to help write the grant. He has previously served as the court monitor for the magnet program during the last years of the parish’s 51-year-old desegregation case, which ended in 2007.
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