ONCE UPON A TIME
“Before if he walked in our building, many teachers would have no idea who he was. Now, they know who he is, what he stands for and what’s he’s about.” Phyllis crawford, Sherwood Middle Magnet School principal
Instead of going to school, thousands of teachers piled into school buses early Tuesday bound for Southern University to hear directly for the first time from the man leading the East Baton Rouge Parish school system for next three years.
Standing on the stage of the Felton G. Clark Activity Center, new Superintendent Bernard Taylor apologized for the inconvenience and promised he would not keep the teachers long.
“I know there’s a degree of ‘hurry up’ here,” Taylor said.
“But I’m new here. You’re not,” he said. “So, it’s important for me to introduce myself to each and every one of you.”
Teachers finished up the last school year in mid-May. Taylor was selected to replace John Dilworth as superintendent, but did not officially start until a month later on June 18.
Tuesday was teachers’ first day back from summer break. Wednesday is the first day back for students.
While common in other school districts, East Baton Rouge Parish has not held a “convocation” in years, opting instead to allow teachers to go directly to work.
Afterward, Phyllis Crawford, longtime principal of Sherwood Middle Magnet School, said that a convocation made sense for Taylor since he’s new and the teachers benefited from getting to hear from him.
“Before if he walked in our building, many teachers would have no idea who he was,” Crawford said. “Now, they know who he is, what he stands for and what’s he’s about.”
The convocation attracted about 4,600 attendees, not just teachers but all school instructional staff. The school system had employees gather at six schools for the event and transported them on 105 buses.
Taylor had another reason for the big event.
“We have a lot to celebrate, a lot,” he said.
He singled out Samhita Rau, who was an eighth-grader at Glasgow Middle School last year, and Baton Rouge Magnet High School Principal Nan McCann. They won Louisiana student of the year, and Louisiana principal of the year for their respective school levels last year.
Taylor also highlighted overall district improvement over the past few years as well as improvement at many individual schools, including many lower-performing schools, even as new educational options are being made available.
“With all this choice people have, we have continued to enroll students,” Taylor said. “That means we must be doing something right.”
On Monday, the school system had 42,441 students on its rolls, a number that will change a lot over the next few weeks.
That figure is slightly up from earlier in the summer, but about 1,000 students fewer than the system had enrolled on the first day of school a year ago. East Baton Rouge Parish schools had 43,303 students on Oct. 1, 2011, the official enrollment count day for the state.
In the past year, the educational landscape has change. As part of new legislation, the state has approved about 800 private school voucher spots at 18 private schools in Baton Rouge for students seeking to transfer out of public schools with graded C, D and F by Louisiana Department of Education accountability standards.
Taylor alluded to these changes as he urged teachers to be “your own public relations team,” to tell their friends, churches, local civic groups and local media of their many successes.
“If you don’t tell your story, other people are all too willing to step in and tell it for you,” he said.
In this same vein, Taylor said that he and his top staff aim to treat teachers as their “clients,” but that teachers in turn need to do the same.
“Would you go to a doctor who had cold hands?” he asked, sparking a laugh from the crowd. “Would you go to a barber who nicked you?” he added.
Taylor was preceded by Southern University Chancellor James Llorens, Mayor-President Kip Holden, and District Attorney Hillar Moore III.
Speaking about his own troubled upbringing and challenges to adult success, Holden said that through “education and tenacity” children can beat the odds. He said the same thing can be the case for Baton Rouge public schools.
Moore said teachers doing their job well is crucial to keeping children off the streets and out of jail.
“We see what you do every day, and we see what happens when the system fails,” he said. “We think we can work with you and do some great things together.”