Baton Rouge students visit D.C.

Two Baton Rouge middle school students met Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and he told them that they have accomplished more than he has in academic research.

Desirae Gardner, a sixth-grader at Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School, and Jalen Scott, a seventh-grader at the school, were invited to the Department of Education after they were published in an academic journal earlier this year for their research projects with LSU professors.

“He (Duncan) told them even he hasn’t had an article,” Kenilworth Principal Hasan Suzuk said.

Both students were making their first trip to Washington, D.C., and they were invited to discuss better linking middle school students with higher education.

They also on Wednesday met briefly outside of the Senate chamber with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who congratulated them, and they plan to spend time with Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, on Thursday.

“It’s been very educational and fun,” Gardner said with a smile. “I’ve gotten to meet people I hadn’t before, and they know my name.”

Scott said they were having a great time on the trip, even if they were operating on a whirlwind schedule. “If (President) Obama is reading this, Jalen says, ‘Hi’,” he added.

As for the students’ work, they were published in Soil Horizons, which is an academic journal, based on the results of their science fair projects. It was the first time that middle school students were published in the journal, according to the publication.

Gardner’s work focused on the levels of arsenic in East Baton Rouge Parish school playgrounds, while Scott’s project measured the levels of lead in the playgrounds.

They partnered and shared credit with LSU associate professor David Weindorf, a soils specialist with the LSU Agricultural Center, and the university’s $30,000 handheld X-ray spectrometer.

Gardner’s examination found elevated levels of arsenic at seven of the 11 schools they examined. Scott found lead levels above Environmental Protection Agency screening limits at four of the schools.

“I was really surprised at all the outcomes,” Gardner said, noting that some of the issues involved lead paint seeping into the soil.

School officials concluded that there was no cause for alarm, although they suggested to parents ways that children could avoid ingesting the metals found in the soil.

Karen Fontenot, a school board member at Kenilworth and interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Southeastern Louisiana University, praised the students for their accomplishments.

“Desirae and Jalen have already accomplished so much at a young age. We are very proud of them,” Fontenot said in a prepared statement. “They achieved success through their hard work and commitment to their studies, just as Kenilworth is committed to providing an environment where students are challenged and supported in a safe environment.”