BR students head back to school (Video)

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Lee High School Principal Averil Sanders talks to a class Monday at Lee High School on Bawell Street in Baton Rouge. This is Sanders' second year as the school's principal.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Lee High School Principal Averil Sanders talks to a class Monday at Lee High School on Bawell Street in Baton Rouge. This is Sanders' second year as the school's principal.

Facilities transformed in time for new year

Lee High held school Monday in a new location — the former home of Valley Park Alternative School — and with a largely new set of students and faculty.

Lee High was one of several new or transformed schools to open its doors Monday, the start of the 2013-14 school year for most schools in Baton Rouge.

“I love the size. I love the atmosphere,” said Donna Thibodeaux, who dropped off her son Joshua to start ninth grade. “They already know you by name.”

Garnet Turner said her daughter Dayea, a junior, attended Lee High last year and wanted to come back and experience the changes at the new location.

“The classes are smaller, and there is more one-on-one instruction,” the mother said.

The new Lee High has a new mission — to provoke a love for science, technology, engineering, and math as well as the visual and performing arts through individual and class projects.

Principal Averil Sanders said he’s gratified both by the enthusiasm of local businesses he’s approached for help and by the active participation of Lee parents.

“It’s great to be part of something that people want,” Sanders said.

It’s a small something so far.

The high school had 235 students enrolled in grades nine to 11, with open slots in all grades, making it one of the smallest high schools in Baton Rouge. Sanders noted that recruiting began late and said he can still add another 100 students.

School officials expect Lee’s appeal to grow over time. They plan to spend an estimated $58 million rebuilding the high school at its historic home at 1105 Lee Drive. The building was demolished over the summer. The new Lee, set to start construction in early 2014, is being designed for at least 1,200 students.

Attracting students by leveraging the popularity of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system’s magnet program is a key part of Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s strategy in competing for students from state-run schools, independent charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded vouchers.

Overall, enrollment as of Monday was 42,337 students at 83 parish schools. That’s a decline of 579 students from the 42,916 students enrolled in the parish school system on the first day of school a year ago. Louisiana’s official enrollment count is not taken until Oct. 1.

Monday’s enrollment figures show some bright spots among the magnet programs Taylor has expanded.

The Scotlandville Middle Pre-Engineering Academy had 579 students enrolled, almost 300 more than a year ago. A new elementary school, Mayfair Lab, had 165 students enrolled, with vacancies only in second grade, its highest grade.

Baton Rouge Charter Academy at Mid City could be the beneficiary of any decline in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. The elementary school has actively recruited all summer and claimed to have about 600 students enrolled as the school year approached.

On Monday morning, the school, at 1900 N. Lobdell Blvd., was busy, with no spaces in the parking lot and a lobby full of parents. Principal Christine Stoudt said, through an intermediary, she was too busy to speak and did not return messages left Monday seeking comment.

Stoudt’s school and the new Louisiana Key Academy, a small school that focuses on children with dyslexia, bring to 14 the number of charter schools operating in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Charter schools are public schools run privately.

Taylor said he’ll wait to see how the enrollment situation shakes out before making a judgment. He noted that last year, many students who left came back as the year progressed.

“I don’t get the sense that we’re seeing a great loss of students,” he said.

The Recovery School District may have lost students at the schools it runs in north Baton Rouge, particularly at Istrouma High and Prescott Middle School, where only 93 students showed up for school Monday.

Zoey Reed, a spokeswoman for RSD, said more students are registered but have yet to attend school and, consequently, principals expect their enrollment to grow through August. She also said Dalton and Lanier elementaries may add sections because of higher-than-expected demand.

Last year, 2,300 students were enrolled on Oct. 1 at the seven RSD schools. Total enrollment figures for RSD schools as of Monday were not available. However, 1,645 students had been registered as of last week.

Taylor said he was happy with how the first day of school went overall. The main problems involved transportation glitches, he said, mostly involving students who registered late.

Some classrooms still lacked full-time teachers Monday, but Taylor said he wasn’t sure of the number. The last count he had was from Friday, when the school system had 58 teacher vacancies.

Taylor noted that a teacher fair was held Saturday and hiring continued Monday. Nevertheless, he said he wants schools to be as choosey now as they were earlier in the hiring cycle.

“I don’t want to just put anybody in the classroom, just because we have a vacancy,” he said.