EBR superintendent lays out plans to improve schools

As he starts his second year leading the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, Superintendent Bernard Taylor on Monday discussed offering education to all 4-year-olds, adding seats for hundreds of children interested in magnet programs and improving air-conditioning and heating in all schools.

“Whatever we do is going to go through the lens of student achievement,” Taylor told the Baton Rouge Press Club.

Some of these ideas have price tags. For instance, universal pre-K in Baton Rouge would cost at least $8 million more a year, Taylor said.

In August, the School Board voted to approve a 21-page, wide-ranging strategic plan. The plan’s top goal is to vault the school system to the top 10 statewide by the year 2020.

That’s quite a bold goal for the parish school system, which currently ranks 51st in the state.

Taylor insists it’s doable, assuming the Baton Rouge community helps.

“This is not pie in the sky,” Taylor said, adding, “of course, we can’t do it alone.”

The specific initiatives Taylor laid out Monday are connected to line items in the strategic plan, but Taylor said he’s narrowed the focus.

“We can’t be all things to all people,” he said.

Expanding pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds in Baton Rouge is not a new idea. In 2008, then-Superintendent Charlotte Placide started down that road when she began building more pre-K classrooms.

But funding for pre-K, mostly from state and federal sources, has remained flat for years, despite strong evidence that high-quality pre-K has one of the best returns-on-investment for any educational initiative.

In pressing for universal pre-K, Taylor is going further than the citizen’s committee that developed the strategic plan. That 33-person group called for high-quality options for all young children as well as more research on the subject, but stopped short of calling for universal pre-K.

As far as magnet programs, Taylor has already presided over a large expansion in these popular programs, adding 850 seats in the process.

Lee High converted to a magnet school, Mayfair is now a selective elementary school, and Scotlandville Middle expanded its pre-engineering magnet program.

Magnet schools are schools, most of them selective, that try to attract students via specialized programs.

Taylor is suggesting adding 500 to 1,000 magnet slots for the 2014-15 school year.

He also talked about improving school facilities, especially some older buildings that still lack air conditioning.

“This came as a shock to me,” said Taylor, a native of Pittsburgh. “I thought with the level of heat here, that air conditioning is a birthright.”

Taylor noted there are already indications of academic improvement in Baton Rouge schools, particularly in formerly F-rated schools.

He said he hopes continued improvement will help dampen interest in creating proposed breakaway school districts, such as the one proposed in southeast Baton Rouge, and head off competition from as many as 14 new charter school groups planning to start schools in Baton Rouge in the years to come.

Taylor suggested that most charter schools are offering variations on the status quo.

“Shouldn’t people come with something a little different than what’s already here?” he asked.