Magnet proposal meets resistance

Advocate staff file photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Lee High School entrance in this September 2012 photo. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Lee High School entrance in this September 2012 photo.

School Board member Barbara Freiberg whose district includes Lee High School says she’s not in favor of Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s plans to rush into a magnet program next year.

Taylor has suggested starting a new magnet program at Lee High in the fall, but Freiberg, who represents much of that area of south Baton Rouge and is a graduate of Lee High, told Taylor at the March 7 meeting that it’s all happening too fast. She said she will vote no unless the proposal is changed before the board addresses the issue at its regular meeting Thursday.

“I’d rather wait until next year to kick off the magnet program when students and parents can see the steel beams rising at the Lee High site,” she said. “I really want this to get off to a good start.”

Freiberg said she’s worried because it’s only five months until the start of the 2013-14 school year in August. Better to start it in fall 2014 instead, she said.

As of Tuesday afternoon when the board released its agenda for Thursday’s meeting, nothing had changed. The proposal the board is being asked to vote on Thursday is unchanged from what it was March 7.

Lee High is slated to be torn down this summer and rebuilt at 1105 Lee Drive, a $58.5 million project that won’t be complete until summer 2015. During those two years, Lee High will operate on the campus of Valley Park Alternative School, which in turn is moving to the Town South Shopping Center on Staring Lane.

In the current plan, a rebuilt Lee High will house an estimated 550 students from the school’s south Baton Rouge attendance zone, but will also have enough room for a still-to-be-determined magnet program.

Earlier this month, Taylor presented the board with the idea of starting a small magnet program this fall on the Valley Park campus with just 75 students. It would grow to about 400 students by the 2016-17 school year.

The initial magnet would start with 25 slots for the science-based Project Lead The Way program, and 50 students in a digital animation program. A visual and performing arts theme would be added in 2015 when students move back to a rebuilt school at 1105 Lee Drive.

Taylor told the board March 7 that he proposed Lee High’s magnet in response to the demands of people in the community interested in magnet programs but not able to get in one now due to space constraints. He said his staff held community forums in June and December on the subject.

“We either do something with what we have that is temporary, or we wait,” Taylor said.

If the program is greenlighted Thursday to start in the fall, the school system plans to hold a recruiting campaign from April to June.

The rebuilt Lee High is supposed to have room for at least 1,200 students. Valley Park, an old junior high, has room for a little over half that many students.

Melissa Garrett, who monitors school attendance zones and enrollment for the school system, told the board that originally the idea was to start with 100 magnet students at Valley Park, but that number shrunk to 75 due to space concerns.

“I think that’s unacceptable,” Freiberg said of the reduction. “I don’t want to see us turning away any more students that are eligible for a magnet program in our schools.”

Freiberg said she wants a sizeable magnet program at Lee, especially with hundreds of students on waiting lists for other magnet programs, including Baton Rouge Magnet High.

“I would rather see this school be all magnet or majority magnet with perhaps some traditional seats,” she said. “The way I’m reading this, this is a traditional school with a small magnet program.”

Taylor said the students living in the Lee High attendance zone will need somewhere to go school if not at Lee High. He said it might be possible to build Lee High even bigger than currently planned, perhaps big enough to hold as many as 2,000 students.

He emphasized that the program will adjust as needed, both in terms of demand as well as the courses offered. He said much will be dictated by the job market.

“I want people to understand that this program will evolve,” Taylor said.

Board member Jerry Arbour said he’s also tired of turning away interested magnet school students and supports starting quickly even if the program is small in the beginning.

Board member Connie Bernard said that since students in Lee High’s attendance zone would get first preference for admittance into the magnet program, the traditional program is likely to shrink over time.

Unlike Baton Rouge Magnet High where students need high enough test scores and a minimum 2.5 GPA to get in, students interested in the proposed Lee High magnet would have to fill out an “interest inventory/aptitude” form. To stay in the program, students would have to maintain a 2.5 GPA as well as good attendance.

To help pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year the Lee High program will need to operate, the school system is seeking a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant worth up to $4 million a year for Lee and three other schools. The school system will find out in the fall whether it won the grant.