The most improved public school in Louisiana last school year turned out to be a small independent Baton Rouge high school, EBR Lab Academy, closed by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board during a round of budget cuts.
Nine public schools in the Baton Rouge region were either closed or reconfigured at the end of the 2011-12 school year, including EBR Lab.
Seven of those schools were controlled by the state’s Recovery School District, or RSD. EBR Lab shared a campus with Istrouma High and both were run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, but the demise of those two schools was set in motion by RSD.
The School Board closed EBR Lab in May before EBR Lab’s unusually strong 2011-12 academic year was known, the best year in the school’s five-year history, according to the most recent school report cards released last week.
School Board President Barbara Freiberg helped EBR Lab fight off an attempt to close the school in 2011 but reluctantly agreed to its closing the following year. The key difference was the state’s announcement in May that it would take over Istrouma High, a move that made EBR Lab homeless.
“As much as we would have liked the school continue, there were issues of where would we move it, where would it go,” Freiberg said.
Another factor, she said, was that EBR Lab, even after some cost-cutting, was more expensive to run administratively than other high schools in the parish.
“We’re very proud of what they did, but I don’t believe academics were the only thing,” Freiberg said.
The closure of the school saved an estimated $1 million and was part of more than $28 million in budget cuts the board approved at the time.
Of the nine local public schools closed or reconfigured at the end of the 2011-12 school year, seven improved compared with the year before. Crestworth Learning Academy, then a charter school and Istrouma High, were the exceptions, both declining slightly.
The five schools run by the now defunct group Advance Baton Rouge — Dalton and Lanier elementaries, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools and Pointe Coupee Central High School — all improved at least a little, though all would have still earned F grades if RSD had not ousted ABR and installed new management.
The only school that would have likely escaped the academic cellar was EBR Lab. It saw improvements on end-of-course exams in algebra, English, geometry and biology. Geometry and biology were particular bright spots with passage rates doubling and gains that outpaced the state and the parish school system.
None of that was known on May 3 when the School Board voted to close the school. EBR Lab’s 203 students hadn’t even finished taking the exams, and the results were not released until mid-June.
EBR Lab supporters fought unsuccessfully to persuade the board to find it a new home away from Istrouma. Instead, its students scattered to other local high schools.
EBR Lab was formed in 2007 as a post Hurricane Katrina experiment that created a small high school and was funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The independent high school had only 203 students, about half its intended enrollment of 400.
When the state Department of Education released scores last week, it did not release “baseline” school performance scores for schools such as EBR Lab that were closed or placed under new governance. The baseline is a two-year rolling average.
For high schools, 70 percent of the score is based on standardized test scores and 30 percent is based on a “graduation index” that includes a variety of factors including the schools’ dropout and graduation rate.
The baseline score determines whether a school gets a letter grade, ranging from A to F.
EBR Lab’s last baseline score, given out in fall 2011, was 58.4, an F. If it had remained open, it would have needed at least a 75 to earn a D.
The state, however, did release a one-year “growth” school performance score for EBR Lab and other schools in the same boat.
By that measure, EBR Lab grew from 53 to 99.8. That 46.8 point gain was the most in the state.
The second-fastest-growing school in 2011-12 was also in Baton Rouge, another small high school, Madison Preparatory Academy, which also started in 2007. That charter school improved its growth score by 44.7 points, and its letter grade improved from an F to a D.
“This set of scores is the first year we had a full set of data components that matched the other high schools,” said Molly Williams, who served as EBR Lab’s principal from 2009 to 2011 and was assistant principal for its first two years.
One key missing ingredient was a graduation rate.
The first graduating class didn’t walk across the stage until spring 2011. Eighty-seven percent made it all the way from freshman year to graduation senior year.
In the Baton Rouge region, only five other public high schools had higher graduation rates.
Supporters of the school also tried to argue that its test scores were better than they seemed.
While students there had struggled on the state’s high school exit exam, which was phased out last year, they were already showing better results than other Baton Rouge high schools on the newer end-of-course tests, and that was before the big improvement this year.
Williams said the school had built up a good faculty before it was closed. Since then, more than half of those teachers have left the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, taking jobs in private schools such as Dunham and Episcopal, or in other school districts, including Zachary, she said.
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