RSD eyes charters for BR schools

Several national groups were recently approved to move into north Baton Rouge and start charter schools over the next few years, but the Louisiana Department of Education has yet to make a critical decision, picking which ones will land space in the seven schools the state operates there.

In advance of that decision, expected in October, the state-run Recovery School District has been holding a series of community meetings to gain input on how to transform some of the lowest-performing schools in the area.

“This is the result of lessons learned from New Orleans,” said RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard. “This is not something we’ve done before.”

Dobard explained that past decisions in New Orleans about which charter schools to locate where were made with little advance public input, and a few decisions stirred controversy.

The seven RSD schools — Dalton and Lanier elementaries, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools, Capitol and Istrouma high schools and Cresworth Learning Academy — were run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system until they were taken over by the state, starting in 2008. After a series of leadership and governance changes, the seven schools are operated by state employees, but that’s a temporary situation.

The campuses also are partially filled. Prescott Middle School spent last year vacant, except for a few administrative offices. Students were returned this year, but between 100 and 150 students are attending Prescott.

The RSD-run elementary schools, Dalton and Lanier, have done better, even adding students this year.

The New Orleans-style network of charter schools the RSD is creating has been dubbed the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone.

In August, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved 14 charter management organizations that indicated interest in starting new charter schools in Baton Rouge, some as early as 2014, some down the road.

Dobard said he is looking to place at least five of these groups in the seven RSD schools in Baton Rouge in fall 2014, perhaps placing more than one charter school on the same campus. He said he likes what he has to choose from.

“All of these folks pretty much hit the mark on what we want,” Dobard said.

The community meetings held this past week generated input, but failed to attract many people, especially people not already connected with RSD schools.

A meeting Wednesday night attracted about 30 people, but no unaffiliated parents. A meeting Thursday night — the parish School Board also met Thursday — was a little better attended, with about 40 people, though only 10 or so were unaffiliated individuals.

Dobard also points to input gathered at “focus groups” held in June and August at Southern University and LSU. They were facilitated by professors and graduate students, and attracted about 90 people in total, he said.

“We would like to see more involvement, sure,” Dobard said. “But the quality level of involvement we’ve seen to this point is very helpful.”

This information will be put to use on Sept. 16 and 17. That’s when representatives from as many as nine of these groups will sit down with individuals with RSD staff and members of a 22-person Baton Rouge Achievement Zone advisory board, including parish School Board members Craig Freeman and Barbara Freiberg. No more than 30 people will be present per interview and attendance is invitation-only.

“I think it’s important for the operators to hear what’s in the minds and thoughts of local stakeholders,” said Dana Peterson, RSD’s deputy superintendent of external affairs.

Dobard said the advisory board’s role will be limited to helping him determine which charter school groups should get space in RSD schools. He said the advisory board, for instance, will not rank the presentations or offer recommendations.

Dobard said BESE will vote on the recommendations brought to that body by RSD.

One group that will be offering Dobard some recommendation in advance of BESE’s vote is New Schools for Baton Rouge. This group was formed in early 2014, and is led by Chris Meyer, a former top administrator with RSD and the state.

Meyer has identified six charter school organizations that his group is likely to award millions of dollars to help offset startup and other costs: The organizations are Celerity Educational Group, Collegiate Academies, Democracy Prep, Family Urban Schools of Excellence, KIPP New Orleans, and YES Prep Public Schools.

New Schools plans to make a final recommendation by October.

Noel Hammatt, a former parish School Board member and a frequent critic of RSD and the state Department of Education, attended Wednesday’s meeting at S.E. Mackey Community Center.

RSD had planned to break the audience into four groups to provide input, but with only 30 people there, only two such groups were formed.

Looking around the group he was placed in, Hammatt asked a couple of questions.

“How many parents are here?” he asked. No hands went up.

“How many of you are people who will make money from this effort,” he asked, prompting ugly looks from many sitting there.

“What does it tell you that nobody showed up?” Hammatt continued.

Dobard, who was going back and forth between both tables, jumped in.

“If there’s ways you think would allow us to bring more people in, please let us know,” he said.

One concern that came up repeatedly at the meetings this week was the desire to have whatever charter schools come to town connect with Baton Rouge, its history and its culture.

Derrius Montgomery, a parent organizer with the group Stand For Children, urged RSD to press charters to work hard to preserve the history and the name of schools, especially high schools with active alumni and long memories.

“We can’t talk about anything if we’re crushing the legacy of these schools,” he said.

Dobard said there are ways to do that and he points to high schools in New Orleans that are achieving a balance between the old and the new.