Students beg board for help
The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted on Thursday to close EBR Lab Academy at the end of this school year, sparking tears from more than a dozen students who made emotional pleas to keep their school open.
“Shutting us now is like saying, ‘Well you all improved but you’re just not good enough to stay open,’ ” said Ciara Jenkins, a sophomore at the small independent high school that was formed in 2007.
“I’m in shock,” said Amy Cohen, who teaches Spanish and social studies, as she stopped to give tearful hugs to one student after another after the board’s vote to close the school.
School Board Vice President Tarvald Smith, who was originally an opponent of the school but later became an ardent supporter, said decisions like the one facing board members on Thursday was “the hardest part of our job.”
Voting to close the school were board members Jerry Arbour, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Barbara Freiberg, Craig Freeman, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson. Smith and board member Vereta Lee abstained, and board member Randy Lamana was absent.
The school’s future was cast in doubt last week when the state-run Recovery School District announced it was taking over Istrouma High School. Since EBR Lab is housed on the Istrouma High campus, the school of 203 students was facing imminent loss of its space.
Closing EBR Lab Academy will eliminate 13 positions, saving an estimated $1 million, according to school system administrators, and was one of dozens of cuts the board approved Thursday, totaling an estimated $24.6 million.
The budget cutting isn’t done yet.
Interim Superintendent Carlos Sam is suggesting the board cut enough to plug a $29 million hole from its general operating budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Sam said he’s taking a closer look at three other suggested cuts, namely closing Polk Elementary, cutting back life insurance benefits for future retirees, and changing bus pickup times and therefore start times for parochial schools.
The spending isn’t done yet either.
The board also on Thursday approved $1 million in new spending and is contemplating more to deal with fallout from the Istrouma takeover and a proposal to reopen Lee High School and perhaps use Prescott Middle, which the state plans to empty of students.
EBR Lab supporters tried to highlight these newly empty spaces as potential new homes for their school in hopes of sparking the interest of board members, a majority of whom voted to keep the school open a year ago.
Cohen suggested the board let EBR Lab take over former Lee High and use its model to serve as the basis for a new south Baton Rouge high school.
“Is it cheaper to keep the existing school running rather than starting it over?” she asked.
After the meeting, Cohen said she and other faculty are looking for ways to stay alive, perhaps by persuading RSD officials to take the school into their district.
EBR Lab has struggled academically. Its school performance score has declined the past two years, and earned an F under the state’s new letter grade school rating system.
On the other hand, 87 percent of the students who entered the school as freshmen graduated four years later, the second-highest percentage in the parish school system. That achievement won’t be reflected in its school performance score until this fall, after it’s closed.
The school also has a small but passionate group of defenders in local education circles, who say it’s a better school than its scores indicate.
Jon-vielle Williams, the school’s 2012 valedictorian, urged the board to reconsider.
“AT EBR Lab, we have a relationship with our principal. At some schools you never get to meet your principal unless you’re bad or if you’re one of the top students,” Williams said.
Williams said if the school system gave the school its own building and time to grow, it would bring students and revenue to the school district.
“To throw away something that could be a viable asset to you is a stupid choice in my opinion,” Williams said.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, suggested the school system could keep the senior class together by keeping them all together at one school without much expense, an idea a couple board members said they would consider.
The school system cutbacks on the table so far steer clear of layoffs and increases to class size.
The ones approved Thursday, however, eliminated dozens of specific jobs, many of them instructional positions created over the past several years to help schools. The people holding those jobs are either leaving already or will transfer to other vacant jobs in the system.
Several of these positions grew out of initiatives started during the much more financially flush tenure of Superintendent Charlotte Placide. For instance, an elementary math initiative, which placed math coaches in many elementary schools, is being cut in half, with just 12 coaches staying in schools, a savings of nearly $1 million.
Another cutback approved Thursday calls for merging two small alternative schools, Northdale Magnet Academy and the EBR Acceleration Academy, into one school on the Northdale campus.