Parents not deterred by school’s F

Two weeks ago, parents at Career Academy in Baton Rouge received a three-page letter in the mail alerting them that their children were attending an F school, and consequently, would have the option of going elsewhere.

Only three parents called to inquire.

After Principal Melissa Bergeron explained the F grade — the school is new and is being graded only on a portion of the results it will ultimately be measured by — all of them decided to keep their children at the school.

“Really they were just looking for clarity,’ ” the principal said. “They were just trying to understand what it was saying.”

Rather than losing students, Career Academy is actually adding students: Enrollment grew from 230 last year to 270 this year. The growth occurred despite the high school earning an F grade during both of its first two years of operation and its score declining between year one and two.

“Once they see our programs in action, it sells itself,” Bergeron said. “They’ll do whatever they can to be here.”

The school operates on two campuses, the former Brooks-town Elementary and on part of Capitol High.

In addition to much of what a traditional high school offers, Career Academy prepares students for jobs, particularly jobs available to those with the proper credentials. So while still in high school, students can earn industry training and certifications in welding, automotive repair, health care, culinary arts, even scaffolding.

Scaffolding? Bergeron had an explanation.

“Right out of high school, they can get a job making $25 an hour,” she said of working with scaffolding.

On Thursday, instructor Joe Fantauzzo showed his students how to assemble a scaffold, making sure they donned black gloves, a white hard hat, and most importantly, attached a yellow harness to the scaffold, lest they were to slip.

At one point, the student on the top ledge of a scaffold looked around for a hammer, not knowing what to do. Fantauzzo admonished the students below who were also looking around.

“You pass stuff up to him,” he said. “It’s called a train line.”

Thousands of families in Baton Rouge with children at nine other F schools received identical letters as those received by the parents at Career Academy.

“All children enrolled at a public school designated as academically unacceptable (letter grade of F) must be provided the opportunity to transfer to a higher performing public school within their local school district,” read the Aug. 9 letter.

Then came the catch.

“However, students attending alternative schools, charter schools and magnet schools may always return to their home (neighborhood) school,” continued the letter.

A central feature of the federal No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002, is school choice. It requires public school districts to identify students in the lowest performing schools and offer to pay to transport them to better performing schools in other parts of town. However, if the schools they “choose” get an F, the option parents are given is one they’ve had from the beginning: to return to their neighborhood school that draws from the attendance zone in which they live.

Over time, fewer and fewer of these neighborhood schools are having to offer school choice. In school districts like East Baton Rouge Parish, low-performing neighborhood schools have either met minimum academic standards, or they’ve been closed or restructured.

Last year, 14 F-rated neighborhood schools in Baton Rouge, with 8,800 students collectively, had to offer school choice. This year, only one, Claiborne Elementary School, received a F and is obliged to offer the service.

The nearly 750 parents of students at Claiborne received a different letter, one that offered 33 higher performing alternatives. Friday was the deadline to apply, and students will have to actually change schools by Sept. 13.

Career Academy, however, is a charter school and is treated differently under federal law. Charter schools are public schools run privately. The law views them as schools of choice, since families opted out of their neighborhood schools to attend these schools. Parents there have, in essence, exercised their choice.

Bergeron is striving to make Career Academy a better choice.

A former high school business education teacher who spent her professional life working in career and technical education, Bergeron took over Career Academy halfway through the 2012-13 school year, soon after the school’s founding principal, Pam Mackie, left unexpectedly for medical reasons.

Bergeron said it was a tough year. For instance, the school lost its biology teacher midyear to another school district; biology scores tanked.

She has since cleaned house. Of her 25 faculty members, only a few worked at Career Academy last year, she said.

The daughter of a hydraulic mechanic in West Virginia, the then Melissa Bentley was in a hurry to get out of the country and become a city girl. Throughout her career, though, she has gravitated toward career classes and sees this job as her life coming full circle.

“When they interviewed me for this job, I told them, ‘I honestly was born to be principal of Career Academy,’ ” she said.

Being principal has its small blessings. The school, which began in August 2011, is about to produce its first two graduates — the lack of any graduates, and therefore no graduation rate, has hurt the school’s performance score. She relishes being able to sign her name on those diplomas.

The school’s focus on careers produces special passions in its students.

“They get to get on a bus, put on a hard hat and build something,” she gushed. “They get so excited. They come back smiling every day.”

One of those happy students is senior QuaDarrius Perkins. Perkins has developed a love for welding. Now, in his second year of welding instruction, he’s helping to train newer students in the program. He even appeared on a school billboard.

Tajuana Ancoine, Perkins’ mother, started looking for another high school for her son when he was a student at Broadmoor High and told her he didn’t think he wanted to go to college. After shopping around, she liked the job-training emphasis of Career Academy, but didn’t realize exactly what job would capture her son’s attention.

“I was shocked,” she said, still amazed. “I never would have thought he’d be interested in welding.”

A school earning an F grade for two years in a row is not without its consequences.

The school is in its third year of a five-year contract with the parish school system and will have to make an academic turnaround to continue that contract. Deputy Superintendent Michael Haggen told the School Board earlier this month that Career Academy should consider reclassifying itself as an alternative school. Four of the F schools in Baton Rouge are alternative schools.

Bergeron said she’s not going to do that. Instead, she’s betting that the changes the school is making will lift the school out of the academic cellar.

“The reasoning to do that would be to just fly under the radar with our schools,” she said. “But that’s not what we were created for.”

She didn’t close the door on the idea.

“If we give it everything we’ve got and still fall short, we might revisit going the alternative school route,” she said.