Public wary of school plan

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISAndrea O'Konski, left, records parents' ideas while Kim Williams, standing, right, moderates a break-out group of parents and administrators  Wednesday night at Woodlawn High School concerning a proposal to divide public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish into four
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISAndrea O'Konski, left, records parents' ideas while Kim Williams, standing, right, moderates a break-out group of parents and administrators Wednesday night at Woodlawn High School concerning a proposal to divide public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish into four "attendance regions."

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s idea of dividing 36 public schools in Baton Rouge into four attendance regions where students could choose any school in their region got a chilly reception Wednesday night from many of the more than 300 people at Woodlawn High School.

“It’s so vague,” said Julie Edmonson, who has two children in the parish school system. “They haven’t given us a lot of info. So the red flags are going up.”

Woodlawn High is the proposed main school for a proposed nine-school independent school district that some residents in southeast Baton Rouge pushed unsuccessfully for in the Legislature last spring and plan to push for again in 2013.

Many supporters of the Local Schools for Local Children effort were present at Woodlawn High on Wednesday night, including Norman Browning, the president of the breakaway school district group, and state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, who authored the legislation.

Browning said Wednesday night was the first time he had heard details about Taylor’s proposals and he welcomes further discussion with the superintendent.

Taylor presided over similar community meetings at Capitol Elementary on Monday and Scotlandville High on Tuesday, and the fourth one this week is planned for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Glen Oaks High.

On Wednesday, Taylor proposed little change to 10 schools in what he’s calling the Woodlawn “family of schools,” except to turn Mayfair Middle, which is not usually considered part of southeast Baton Rouge, into a magnet school.

Taylor asked the audience for ideas of what the district could offer in those 11 schools to make them more attractive.

“Let me emphasize that no decision has been made about any of this,” Taylor said. “This is a framework for discussion. All we are doing now is soliciting feedback.”

Taylor, however, plans to turn this regional concept into a plan soon. He has said he hopes to have a formal plan ready for the School Board to vote on by the end of this month, and then would send that plan on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, in December.

Some elements of the plan would involve using schools currently run by the state’s Recovery School District, or RSD. Taylor has been in so far fruitless negotiations with RSD over how to fix low-performing schools in north Baton Rouge. RSD is trying to create an “Achievement Zone,” a mostly charter school network that it wants East Baton Rouge Parish schools to participate in.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard issued a statement Wednesday on the idea that Taylor first announced a week ago.

“We support the direction that Superintendent Taylor has chosen, but what really matters most is quality of education, more than programs and enrollment,” Dobard said. “EBR still has 19 “F” schools and we want to work together to turn them around quickly.”

Problems in the schools RSD runs, as well as discontent with north Baton Rouge schools that the East Baton Rouge Parish school system operates, have led many families to opt for schools elsewhere, including several in southeast Baton Rouge.

Taylor has said that he hopes that by giving families more and better choices in the Capitol, Scotlandville and Glen Oaks regions, more students will stay in those parts of town and ease overcrowding in southeast Baton Rouge schools in the Woodlawn region.

Taylor had those in the audience break into smaller groups to offer ideas for programs for those schools, writing them down on big white sheets of paper.

Some people did, but several groups just listed concerns and questions. One white sheet just read, “Uncertainty, Transportation Nightmare, Not Enough info.”

Andrea Parsons, a school nurse, a parent of schoolchildren in the system and a resident of southeast Baton Rouge, cornered Taylor at one point. She wanted to know if a student could choose any school — an elementary student would have six elementary schools to choose from — and whether it would prevent her from sending her child to the school closest to her home.

Parsons came away with more concerns than she had before the meeting.

“He couldn’t guarantee that my child would go to a neighborhood school,” she said. “And that bothers me a lot.”