EBR board OKs Lee High Magnet program

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Theresa Porter, administrator of the magnet program for the  East Baton Rouge Parish school system, explains the priorities for student admittance to the proposed Lee High School magnet program to the parish School Board Thursday. The board voted to approve the project moving forward for the 2013-2014 school year.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Theresa Porter, administrator of the magnet program for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, explains the priorities for student admittance to the proposed Lee High School magnet program to the parish School Board Thursday. The board voted to approve the project moving forward for the 2013-2014 school year.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday agreed unanimously to convert Lee High from a traditional neighborhood school to a dedicated magnet program that all students living in south Baton Rouge’s attendance zone would be potentially eligible to attend.

The high school, which reopened in April after three years of being closed, will increase from 223 students to an estimated 450 students in the 2013-14 school year, and to 600 students the following school year.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor had originally called for adding only a small magnet program that would operate alongside the traditional neighborhood school program.

But Taylor released a revised plan Thursday morning in which the entire school would be a magnet program. Students would have to apply and submit for an interview, as well as take an “aptitude” test designed to determine what magnet theme they should pursue.

School Board member Barbara Freiberg, whose district includes Lee High School, had opposed Taylor’s original idea, but came out in support of the superintendent’s revised version on Thursday.

“I can only tell you about those who have emailed since the recommendation, but they are excited about it,” Freiberg said.

The new Lee High program would focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, plus arts, making the acronym STEAM. The arts part focuses on digital animation and visual and performing arts.

During a lengthy debate at meeting March 7, Freiberg had said she wanted a sizeable magnet program at Lee, especially with hundreds of students on waiting lists to get into other magnet programs, including Baton Rouge Magnet High.

“I would rather see this school be all magnet or majority magnet with perhaps some traditional seats,” she said then. “The way I’m reading this, this is a traditional school with a small magnet program.”

Board member Connie Bernard, whose district includes part of south Baton Rouge, said she liked Taylor’s revised concept and said it should allow for most of the students who live in the Lee High attendance zone to remain there.

“There’s almost no one that wouldn’t qualify for the program,” Bernard said.

Unlike Baton Rouge Magnet High, where students need high enough test scores and a minimum 2.5 GPA to get in, students interested in the proposed Lee High magnet would have to fill out an “interest inventory/aptitude” form. To remain in the program, students would have to maintain a 2.5 GPA, as well as good attendance.

On Thursday, Taylor added some new wrinkles.

In 2013-14, under Taylor’s plan, the first preference for admission would go to students in the Lee High attendance zone, followed by students in attendance zones for McKinley, Tara and Woodlawn high schools, and then everyone else.

In 2014-15, the top preference would go to students who graduated from a middle school magnet program in the parish. Second preference would then go to those living in the Lee High zone, followed by those in the three neighboring high schools and then everyone else.

The most controversial aspect of the plan is what happens to students in the Lee High zone either don’t apply, don’t successfully get in, or fail to maintain a 2.5 GPA and have good attendance. Those students would be reassigned to McKinley and Tara high schools.

“We’re telling kids that don’t get into the magnet program, they won’t be able to attend their neighborhood school?” asked board member Tarvald Smith.

Lee High is slated to be torn down this summer and rebuilt at 1105 Lee Drive, a $58.5 million project that won’t be complete until summer 2015. During the two years the school is under construction, Lee High will operate on the campus of Valley Park Alternative School, which in turn is moving to the Towne South Shopping Center on Staring Lane.

The Lee High magnet program will begin in August, the school system plans to hold a recruiting campaign from April 1 to May 6.

The rebuilt Lee High is supposed to have room for at least 1,200 students. Valley Park, an old junior high, has room for a little over half that many students.

To help pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year the Lee High program will need to operate, the school system is seeking a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant worth up to $4 million a year for Lee and three other schools. The school system will find out in the fall whether it has been awarded the grant.