Inside Report for Jan. 22, 2013

EBR school system considering more magnets

By Charles Lussier

Advocate staff writer

As the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system tries to deal with increased competition from new charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded vouchers, and fend off proposed breakaway school districts, school leaders are turning to one of the system’s few consistently popular areas — magnet schools.

Since taking over in June, Superintendent Bernard Taylor has floated the idea of creating at least eight new magnet programs, in addition to the 14 already operating.

Of those, Lee High is the only definite addition so far, set to begin in August at the start of the 2013-14 school year. The admissions application period will start in March. Magnet students will learn alongside students enrolled in the traditional Lee High neighborhood school, which reopened in August with 226 students.

Lee is attractive because of its location at 1105 Lee Drive. It’s in an area with many children attending private schools now. Some of these children try unsuccessfully to get into popular public school magnet programs such as Baton Rouge Magnet High, but end up on waiting lists instead.

School leaders, however, have yet to explain the academic programs the new Lee magnet will offer, the number of slots available or the admissions criteria.

Even the location of the school is in doubt.

In November, the School Board voted to rebuild Lee High on its current site, a project estimated to cost $58.5 million. Construction is set to start later this year, meaning Lee will have to move temporarily. The school system has yet to settle on where Lee will hold school during a two-year period of exile.

Also, funding is uncertain.

The system’s Magnet School office is applying for a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant, worth up to $4 million a year. But the award announcement is not expected until fall 2013, delaying its use until fall 2014, too late for Lee High’s planned start date.

If that grant comes through, Lee High won’t be the only beneficiary; it would also fund new magnet programs at Magnolia Woods and Polk elementaries, as well Broadmoor Middle School. Like Lee, these programs would operate alongside the traditional neighborhood schools at those three campuses.

The other four proposed magnet programs are part of initial proposals, what Taylor is calling a “framework for discussion,” to designate four sections of the parish as “attendance regions” that offer more choices than currently available. Taylor laid out these ideas at a series of community forums in November and will update those proposals during a round of yet-to-be-scheduled forums.

Taylor suggested creating new magnet programs at Belfair, Claiborne and Melrose elementary schools, as well as Mayfair middle schools. All would be dedicated magnet schools, meaning the schools would no longer have neighborhood attendance zones.

Belfair already has a within-school magnet program focusing on Montessori education. That program would expand and add students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Melrose would add a gifted program as well.

Claiborne and Melrose elementary schools are big campuses, with 800 and 600 students respectively. Students at those schools now would be reassigned to other schools and would have to apply to stay.

To reduce potential disruption, Taylor has said he wants all the new magnet schools to have less restrictive admission rules. The 14 current magnet programs usually require entrance tests or at least a 2.5 GPA to gain admission. Taylor, however, hasn’t laid as yet what those new rules would be.

Charles Lussier writes about education in East Baton Rouge Parish for The Advocate. He can be reached at clussier@theadvocate.com.