System redesign weighed

Taylor hopes to provide more school choice with shake-up

Later this month, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board could set in motion the most radical redesign of public schooling in Baton Rouge since the desegregation fights of years past.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who started in June, announced in November he wants to reconfigure and remodel dozens of public schools located in four areas of Baton Rouge into “attendance regions” with boundaries that would erase the neighborhood zones of the elementary and middle schools located in those regions.

Three of these regions are in north Baton Rouge and one is in southeast Baton Rouge. Taylor has said the regional boundaries would be similar, though not necessarily identical, to the traditional zones for the four affected high schools — Capitol, Glen Oaks, Scotlandville and Woodlawn.

The school system would set up regional “marketplaces,” pitting school against school in a competition for students and the per-pupil funding that comes with those students.

Under Taylor’s plan, many schools will get new principals, and current teachers in those schools will have to reapply for their jobs. Those not rehired will end up in the job market, pursuing vacancies inside, and perhaps outside, the school system.

“This is going to be a time of great unrest for a lot of people, not from a negative point of view,” Taylor said Friday. “I’m talking about soul searching and introspection of the sort that many of (our) teachers never have to deal with.”

Taylor, however, is also offering teachers a potential role in the restructuring of these schools.

If the School Board approves the changes Feb. 21, Taylor said, he plans to hold an immediate “competition of ideas” in which educators can submit proposals for educational themes and programs to help schools compete against each other.

The changes, if approved, would take effect with the start of the 2013-14 school year in August.

Taylor has refined his proposals based on feedback he received during a series of community forums in November.

Taylor embarked on a second round of forums Jan. 23 with two held so far. He did not sugarcoat matters at a forum in the cafeteria at Capitol Elementary School on Jan. 23, telling those who attended that the changes will be difficult and may mean some teachers lose their jobs.

But, he said, the changes are necessary for the school system to remain financially viable as it now faces outside competition from charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded vouchers.

“If we don’t control our own destiny, our destiny will be decided by others,” Taylor said.

Another forum is being held at 6 p.m. Monday at Scotlandville High, 9870 Scotland Ave. A fourth forum that was supposed to be held Tuesday night at Southeast Middle has been postponed; no new date has been set.

Taylor said he wants to conclude discussions with the leaders of the state-run Recovery School District on the future of Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools before scheduling a forum for the southeast area.

The two schools were taken over in 2008 after years of low academic performance, and the school system has sought unsuccessfully for years to get the schools back to relieve overcrowding at other middle schools in the parish.

Taylor said if he can get one or more of the state-run schools back, more students will stay closer to home. He said that would relieve crowding in schools in the southeast area.

A group of Southeast Baton Rouge residents were unsuccessful in an attempt in 2012 to break away and form an independent school district in the area. They have said they plan to try again this year when the Legislature reconvenes April 8.

Taylor’s plans have been hard to describe because the details remain in flux, and he has not laid them all out in one public document. Rather, he is releasing details piece by piece, region by region and forum by forum. Videos of four of the forums he’s held so far have been posted on the school system’s website, www.ebrschools.org.

Taylor said he will release a full proposal sometime after Monday’s forum at Scotlandville High.

The School Board is planning to debate Taylor’s plans at a meeting Thursday and vote on them at its Feb. 21 regular meeting.

Taylor said he plans to extend the attendance region concept to other parts of Baton Rouge in the years to come.

A consistent theme running through Taylor’s plans is an effort to give families more choices of where to send their children to school. In so doing, he is upending the “community sensitive attendance zones” that were the hallmark of its efforts in the mid-1990s to resolve a long-running desegregation suit.

In the affected regions, public schools would no longer draw primarily from the neighborhoods surrounding their school. Instead, students living in multiple neighborhoods across a much larger geographical area would select from a menu of options.

The regional menus would include new magnet schools, charters schools, schools with new grade configurations, and a range of new but yet-to-be-determined programs and themes. These menus would also include several schools now run by the Recovery School District.

Taylor has scaled down the number of new magnet schools he wants to create. In November, he talked about creating three new magnet programs and expanding a fourth one. Now, he’s talking about creating just one new magnet program at Claiborne Elementary School and expanding a Montessori magnet at Belfair Elementary.

Taylor said he’s still weighing whether to turn Mayfair Middle School into a magnet school as well.

In the case of Glen Oaks High, Taylor is proposing splitting the school in two with a more traditional high school competing with a new charter school. This is similar to an idea Taylor suggested when he was hired for superintendent of creating “educational malls” where schools of different types could compete against each other.