By charles Lussier
Advocate staff writer
August 06, 2012
Over the next two weeks, as students return from summer break, they will confront the ambitious changes pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The most controversial item on Jindal’s agenda, some of which is being challenged in court, involves the transfer of an estimated 5,600 children to 119 private schools in Louisiana. About 800 slots at 18 private schools have been approved in Baton Rouge, second only to New Orleans in voucher interest.
Voucher students will take state tests, and the state will calculate numerical scores for voucher students in private schools. The state, however, will not issue letter grades to private schools — a process required for public schools.
The Jindal agenda also drastically changes tenure from something a teacher earns after a few years of on-the-job experience to something achieved through years of top-level job performance.
As part of this shift, the state had 10 school districts try out a new test-score-based teacher evaluation system, and in 2012-13, it will be used statewide. Principals are administering this new system, known as COMPASS — one of the many new duties they have.
Teachers, however, won’t suffer the consequences of low performance, being labeled “ineffective” and possibly losing tenure or their job, until the 2013-14 school year. That was a last-minute compromise reached after school leaders in the state complained the evaluation system still needed work.
Not all that’s new is coming from the governor and state superintendent of education.
The 86-year-old Baton Rouge Magnet High School is reopening after a $58.2 million rebuilding project spearheaded by the East Baton Rouge Parish school district. In the Central school district, the $46 million new campuses for Central Intermediate and Middle schools will open on 88 acres.
In Livingston Parish, Denham Springs High School and its Freshman High School both have expanded. Construction at the new Live Oak High School in Watson won’t be complete until early 2013.
Ascension Parish is adding magnet programs at its four west bank schools: Donaldsonville Primary, Lowery Elementary, Lowery Middle and Donaldsonville High. The magnet programs are expected to educate nearly 500 students this year. The students selected had at least 3.0 grade-point averages. Students in grades three to 12 in the magnet programs are getting laptop computers they can use at home.
Worried that Northside High would receive an F grade under higher academic standards that recently went into effect, new Lafayette Parish Superintendent Pat Cooper began reorganizing the school. In February, he hired Melinda Voorhies, who for years served as principal at Valley Park Alternative School in Baton Rouge, to take over. When preliminary school performance scores were released in July, Northside did indeed earn an F, but the school had improved substantially and almost made it to D status.
The state-run Recovery School District, in an effort to improve low-performing public schools, has expanded in East Baton Rouge Parish, taking over Istrouma High School from the parish school system. RSD has also replaced management at seven other schools, formerly run as charter schools, in East Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes. Six of the RSD schools in Baton Rouge have been rechristened as a Baton Rouge Achievement Zone. The only charter school in Baton Rouge that RSD oversees but doesn’t manage in-house is Kenilworth Science and Technology School.
A charter school is a public school run privately.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system also is reopening Lee High School. Lee was closed in 2009 to avert a potential state takeover and for the past two years has been the temporary home for about 1,300 displaced Baton Rouge Magnet High students.
The reopened Lee High will absorb parts of the attendance zones of three nearby high schools, starting this fall with an estimated 263 ninth- and 10th-graders. The plan is to add more grades in the future as well as special programs to attract new students to the school system.
Some changes are smaller, but potentially far-reaching.
For instance, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system in February approved its seventh charter school, the small THRIVE Academy. This school, which is starting with about 20 sixth-graders, is the only public inner-city boarding school in Louisiana. Over the course of eight years, the school aims to grow to about 420 students in grades six to 12.
Located in one of four dormitories at the long-closed Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, THRIVE will keep its students in one place Sunday night through Friday. The idea is to create a college-style setting where academics are foremost and the distractions of home and the street are minimized.
Students, for instance, will have no cellphones, using instead four land lines the school will provide. Parents will have limited visiting hours for their children during the school week.
Bringing THRIVE to life has been a multimonth sprint for founder and Executive Director Sarah Broome. On Thursday, much had been done but much was still left to do. Artwork was still to be hung, and the boys bathroom needed some work.
“We will be working right up to the finish line and going down to the night before, but we will be ready,” Broome said.
Budget cutbacks, freezes
All of these changes are occurring against a backdrop of funding freezes and budget cuts. Most school districts have cut back, and even more have postponed new spending. They’re hiring few, if any, new teachers, and many have shed staff.
East Baton Rouge Parish trimmed more than $28 million from its general operating budget and is bracing for more cuts, depending on how many students transfer to private schools from the parish school system’s C-, D- and F-ranked schools.
The parish school system eliminated more than 200 jobs, mostly through attrition, and ended up laying off about 30 people who didn’t transfer to other jobs in the system, retire or resign.
East Baton Rouge and East Feliciana parishes, both with new superintendents, have reorganized their Central Offices, eliminating more jobs.
Teacher vacancies have been largely concentrated in the RSD, where turnover is high, and in the private schools taking in the most voucher students. Many of the RSD vacancies are being filled by Teach For America educators as part of a contract the organization has with the state.
Jaime Finane, director of Certification Solutions, a large alternative teaching program run by the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, said she cut the number of slots this year to 140, down from 230, after the program had trouble placing people last year.
“I have people who went through the 2010 and 2011 sessions who are just now finding jobs,” Finane said.
This year, she said, she has placed 100 of the 140 new teachers in teaching jobs, and expects to find more openings during August.
“I started to see a lot of movement at the end of the last week,” she said Thursday.
Finane said that while new positions are few, some teachers are changing at the last minute for better jobs, leaving openings for graduates to fill. She said her teachers are jumping at the first openings that come along.
“Most people feel like just having a job is the thing,” she said.
To avoid further cutbacks, West Feliciana Parish voters earlier this year approved a half-cent sales tax expected to generate $700,000 per year.
Lafayette Parish, on the other hand, is facing overcrowded schools in Youngsville and older buildings throughout the district. Voters in October rejected a property tax and bond proposal to fund $561 million in new construction and major projects that would have helped those problems.
The expansion of school choice statewide, especially the private school vouchers, has increased the competition for students. Children who leave their schools for other schools take with them as much as $8,500 a year each, depending on the tuition and fees the private school charges.
In Baton Rouge, private schools promoting vouchers, charter schools, RSD schools and traditional public schools have all taken out advertisements and held promotional events in advance of the new school year, trying to persuade families to try them out.
State Education Superintendent John White was appointed in January after a multimonth standoff with members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
White’s shift left a vacancy in RSD, leading to the promotion of Patrick Dobard over that entity.
In the Baton Rouge area, East Baton Rouge and East Feliciana parishes both have new superintendents and Zachary is searching for a new one after its superintendent, Warren Drake, accepted a top job with White at the state Department of Education. Zachary is planning to hire a new superintendent by December.
The East Baton Rouge school system, after a bruising and contentious search for a superintendent, chose Bernard Taylor, formerly the leader of the Grand Rapids, Mich., system.
East Feliciana chose Henderson Lewis Jr. as its new superintendent.
Even as many experiments are beginning, others have ended.
For instance, East Baton Rouge Laboratory Academy, a small independent high school on the campus of Istrouma High, closed after five years. The academy had just two graduating classes. The school system abandoned the idea of keeping the senior class together in one location, after most students quickly transferred to other high schools.
Advocate staff writers Heidi Kinchen, Bret McCormick, James Minton and Marsha Sills contributed to this story.