School choices changing for Baton Rouge parents

On top of the usual craziness of shopping for supplies and new uniforms and pushing kids to finish summer reading, some parents are still shopping for something more fundamental: Their child’s school.

When classes for Baton Rouge public schools begin Aug. 12, three new schools will be opening their doors, even as three others have closed.

The new schools — two independent charter schools and an elementary school modeled after LSU Lab School — are expected to handle almost 1,000 students.

Meanwhile, East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor, barely a year on the job, has replaced dozens of principals, closed and remade schools to avert possible state takeovers, expanded the magnet program and completely reworked alternative education, forming technology-centered “superintendent academies” focusing on students who are years behind.

As a result, thousands of students are changing schools, some by choice, some not.

Christine Stoudt is principal of the largest of the two new charter schools, Baton Rouge Charter Academy at Mid City, on North Lobdell, and she’s been making the rounds, trying to explain the choice her school affords.

Her school and the new Louisiana Key Academy, which focuses on children with dyslexia and is located in the Westmoreland Shopping Center on Government Street, bring to 14 the number of charter schools operating in East Baton Rouge Parish. Charter schools are public schools run privately. As recently as 2008, the parish had just three charter schools in operation.

Stoudt said Thursday that more than 100 students registered in the past week for her school, an affiliate of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Charter Schools USA. The upper grades still have a few slots — the elementary school stops at sixth grade — but Stoudt expects to reach her overall enrollment goal of 614 students.

Stoudt said she suspects families coming to her office now have returned from summer vacations and are sizing up their options.

“They want to really know specifics,” she said. “Do you have before and after care, what are the start times, and so forth.”

She said some parents were looking for alternatives because of overcrowding at other public schools.

Six miles away, at Hyacinth Avenue near Bluebonnet Boulevard, overcrowding is not a problem at another new but much different public school, Mayfair Lab School.

The new elementary school is starting with kindergarten through second grade, and its entire faculty of 12 can fit around one table, as it did earlier this week at a planning meeting. Mayfair Lab plans to enroll about 150 students and is full up except for some seats in second grade.

The lab school is replacing Mayfair Middle School, which was closed in May. That F-ranked school struggled academically from the day it opened as a middle school in 2009.

Mayfair Lab is modeled after a much older and well established school with a similar name, LSU Lab School.

The new school is freely borrowing instructional materials and approaches from LSU Lab. Early in July, the faculties of both schools spent a week training together.

Mayfair Lab is also borrowing a big, but pricey, idea LSU Lab uses in the early grades: two teachers per classroom, one the lead teacher and the other the associate.

The classes have 26 students each, which is slightly large for the early grades, but works out differently when split between two teachers.

Jessica Vicknair, who recently moved to Baton Rouge from Alexandria, will teach first grade alongside Shirlene Boyd, a recent LSU graduate who will serve as associate teacher.

“It’s really beneficial to have two teachers,” Vicknair said. “Every child will be working at their highest level.”

School Board member Barbara Freiberg, who once taught at LSU Lab School, notes that her old school team-teaches only until middle school. Although more expensive than having just one teacher in the room, the norm in most elementary schools in Baton Rouge, team-teaching will build students a strong foundation in the early grades, she said.

“If it works, it’s something we can consider doing districtwide,” Freiberg said.

Mayfair Lab is also a selective school and is operating under the magnet program. Students need to show they are on grade level to gain admission.

That selectivity has raised the hackles of state Superintendent of Education John White.

White has accused the parish school system of shuffling students around to hide failure rather than seeking to improve education.

White used that argument earlier this month in rejecting a request from East Baton Rouge Parish to officially close Mayfair Middle and give the new Mayfair Lab a new site code. He used a similar argument in rejecting a request for Delmont Elementary, which has been closed and converted to an early childhood center.

A new site code at Mayfair would reset the school accountability clock. If the clock isn’t reset, Mayfair is potentially up for state takeover later this year.

Taylor, who is urging White to reconsider, is researching the possibility of litigation.

LSU Lab’s Director Wade Smith said he will not sit still if the state moves to take the Mayfair campus.

“If that happens, we’ll do what we have to do,” said Smith

Lee High, five miles west of Mayfair, was closed in 2009 to avoid possible state takeover. In 2012, the School Board restarted the school with the idea of creating something much different.

This past year, Lee operated as a traditional neighborhood high school with about 220 students in ninth and 10th grades at its dilapidated home along Lee Drive in the Southdowns area.

The school was not going to stay traditional. After months of debate, the school system agreed in March to turn the entire school into a magnet program.

Students have to apply to get in, but the entry bar is low. At the same time, the new magnet program will have a heavy focus on science and math, as well as project-based learning and the visual and performing arts. The new magnet is starting small, with students in ninth, 10th and 11th grades, but will expand when students return to the rebuilt Lee in fall 2015.

The new high school will spend the next two years in a temporary home at the campus of Valley Park Alternative School. The old Lee was recently demolished and it is to be rebuilt at an estimated cost of $58 million.

Adam Knapp, who sits on the board for New Schools, said he likes what he’s seen so far of Lee High magnet’s plans. New Schools is trying to develop a much larger network of charter schools in Baton Rouge. Knapp also is president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

“While it’s a small start, it’s definitely symbolic of the kind of options we want to see to bring kids back into the East Baton Rouge Parish school system,” Knapp said. Overall, Knapp said, he’s cautiously optimistic about the added choice and other changes occurring.

“More options and more upward progress is a great sign that the situation is one of improvement and having kids in better schools,” he said.

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Students return to school on the following dates.

• TUESDAY, Aug. 6: St. James Parish.

• WEDNESDAY, Aug. 7: Central Community School System, Ascension and St. Mary parishes.

• THURSDAY, Aug. 7: Iberville, St. Helena and Assumption parishes.

• FRIDAY, Aug. 8 : Livingston, Iberia, St. Landry and St. Martin parishes.

• MONDAY, Aug. 12: East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Tangipahoa and Vermilion parishes.

• WEDNESDAY, Aug. 14: Lafayette and Acadia parishes.

• FRIDAY, Aug. 16: Evangeline Parish.

• MONDAY, Aug. 19: Pointe Coupee Parish.