EBR board supports alternative school plans

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK Students sit at computers at Tara High School Thursday trying to catch up with their peers. Known as blended learning, such classes are crucial to a revamp of alternative schooling for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK Students sit at computers at Tara High School Thursday trying to catch up with their peers. Known as blended learning, such classes are crucial to a revamp of alternative schooling for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members on Thursday expressed support for Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s plans to move middle school students at Glen Oaks High to a new location this fall and to convert Claiborne Elementary into a dedicated magnet program starting in fall 2014.

The board, however, was less sure about a proposal to move about 100 gifted and talented students from Glen Oaks Park Elementary, a C-rated school, to nearby Merrydale Elementary, an F-rated school.

The board considered the changes to these three north Baton Rouge schools, all in the vicinity of Glen Oaks High School, while it convened as a “committee of the whole,” meaning it could offer only recommendations, not final votes. The final votes will be April 18.

After the committee of the whole meeting Thursday, the board held a special meeting. There the board did take final action, voting unanimously to create three more “superintendent academies” that aim to help overage middle school students catch up with their peers through “blended learning,” a mix of in-person and online instruction that requires fewer teachers and costs less.

“This is not about getting rid of teachers,” said Taylor, who added that greater online instruction allows children to work at night and on weekends and catch up faster.

The three new alternative schools revamp three existing alternative schools, Staring Education Center, Valley Park Alternative School and Northdale Magnet Academy. Staring, a middle school, will focus on grades three to eight, while Valley Park and Northdale will focus on high school grades.

The School Board on March 21 approved four new alternative schools, also called “superintendent academies” middle school grades, but wanted more information before approving the remodeling of Staring, Valley Park and Northdale.

Since he took over in June, Taylor has been talking up ideas for big changes in schools, particularly in north Baton Rouge, home to many D-rated and F-rated schools. The plans have shrunk considerably.

In November, Taylor talked about converting schools in four parts of Baton Rouge into “attendance regions” centered by new “families of schools,” affecting some three dozen schools.

In the Glen Oaks area, for instance, Taylor called at one point for putting Glen Oaks High alongside a new charter school on the same campus.

At another point, he called for making Claiborne Elementary into a mirror of A-rated Forest Heights Academy of Excellence, as well as turning Glen Oaks Park into a school only with grades prekindergarten to three.

On Thursday, Taylor said he dropped those ideas after they met resistance from parents in the Glen Oaks area. He said he also listened to these same parents who expressed their dislike of having seventh- and eighth-graders on the Glen Oaks High campus.

“They were loud and clear on that point,” Taylor said.

Taylor has not yet settled on where to move those 227 students instead. He said he’s looking at either the former Banks Elementary or former Baton Rouge Preparatory Academy sites.

The decision to not model Claiborne Elementary after Forest Heights and delay the creation of a magnet program at Claiborne for a year was sparked by a desire to come up with a program that better reflects the wishes of the community, Taylor said.

The idea of moving the gifted-and-talented program from Glen Oaks Park to Merrydale sparked the most opposition Thursday. Taylor said he would likely move the program to Merrydale, along with the teachers, starting in August.

James Finney, a board watcher, said he wishes school officials were more up front.

“If the purpose is to prop up scores at Merrydale, let’s at least be honest about that,” he said.

Glen Oaks Park teacher Bertha Hinajosa said many of her parents are educators in the school system and likely won’t let their children make the move and if she’s still teaching them.

“I polled my parents and they won’t go to Merrydale,” she said. “They are already taking them out and putting them in other schools, because they don’t want to be forced to go somewhere.”