Magnet students crowding gifted out of BR High

Four middle schools with magnet programs have taken almost all of the 400 slots for next year’s ninth-grade class at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, angering the parents of children at other middle schools, particularly three with gifted programs.

They now are scrambling to figure out whether to give other public or private schools a try instead.

It’s a day that’s been coming for years for Baton Rouge’s flagship public high school, since at least 2004. That’s when magnet school students were given preferred admission to the high school.

A total of 363 of this year’s 400 available slots went to students from magnet schools. Another 31 incoming students are younger siblings of current students at the high school.

The preferred admittance for those two groups left just seven spots and meant that students in gifted classes at Glasgow, Westdale and Woodlawn middle schools fell now have a harder time getting in.

The shift is upending longstanding assumptions that gifted students had a good shot of getting into highly coveted slots at Baton Rouge Magnet High.

“I feel like the rug was pulled out from under us, and I’m just upset,” said Marie Smith, whose gifted daughter was rejected a year ago and whom she still hopes will get into Baton Rouge Magnet.

The bad news this year began in late January when the high school began sending out rejection notices.

“It’s frustrating,” said parent Colleen Buras. “I feel like the gifted eighth-graders at Glasgow are being used as pawns to help raise test scores at other schools.”

Baton Rouge High Magnet High has twice won blue ribbon awards for excellence from the U.S. Department of Education, ranks among the top public schools in Louisiana and every year produces an sizable crop of National Merit winners and college scholarship recipients.

McKinley Middle and Sherwood Middle are by far the biggest feeders to the high school, followed by Scotlandville Middle and Westdale Middle, which both have smaller magnet programs. In January, the School Board agreed to create this fall a fifth middle school magnet program at the former Brookstown Elementary.

Baton Rouge Magnet High added more than 200 students in fall 2012 when it moved back into it rebuilt campus on Government Street. That helped but not for long.

In January 2013, the high school accepted a very large class of 550 ninth-graders for that fall, with 129 slots left over. Too large a class, as it turned out.

In a Feb. 13 memo, Superintendent Bernard Taylor said the decision to cut this coming year’s ninth grade from 550 to 400 was “unintentional.” He said the school overestimated how many ninth-graders it could take in and underestimated how many would fail to make the grade and have to leave the magnet program.

In the future, Lee High may help. Lee was converted to a magnet high school last fall, but it currently has only about 225 students and awaits the rebuilding of its campus.

The Baton Rouge Gifted & Talented Association on Thursday night brought educators from two alternatives for gifted parents, McKinley and Woodlawn high schools, to Independence Park to talk about their schools. The meeting attracted about 50 parents, most from Glasgow Middle.

McKinley High, which has about 400 students taking gifted glasses, or about third of its total enrollment, has offered gifted for decades and has teachers with many years of experience. Woodlawn High School, which has almost 200 students taking gifted classes, or about a sixth of its enrollment, began only in 2009 and has many younger teachers.

Each group stressed their small classes, personalized learning plans and high-performing peers.

“We don’t do busywork,” said Suzanne Bentley-Smith, gifted social studies teacher at McKinley High. “We give them quality work.”

“We want the kids to find where their passion is, find it and excel at it,” said Ashley Heyer, a gifted and Advanced Placement history teacher at Woodlawn High.

Heyer said Woodlawn’s getting better and better as it matures.

“We need you in order to have the school that you want,” she said.

Armond Brown, principal of McKinley High, told the parents that this was not a competition.

“Both schools are going to offer your child a great education,” Brown said.

Anna Fogle, president of the gifted and talented association, interjected.

“We are not worried about competition between you,” said Fogle. “We want to know how you are going to compete with Baton Rouge High.”

Brown said gifted students get more attention than students in more traditional programs.

“They’re going to learn the same things (at McKinley High) they learn at Baton Rouge Magnet High, maybe more,” Brown said.

Both principals were put on the defensive when the questioning shifted to student safety.

“Schools in East Baton Rouge Parish get a bad rap when it comes to fighting,” said Woodlawn High Principal Daniel Edwards

Edwards, who took over Woodlawn High in October 2012, said the school had a handful of fights last year, but they were blown out of proportion when school critics posted Internet videos in a constant loop.

“I’m committed to making sure your child is in a safe environment,” Brown said.

The search for a Baton Rouge Magnet High alternative is leading to different places.

India Gilman, whose Glasgow Middle son was not accepted at the high school, said she attended an open house Thursday morning at McKinley High and came away more at ease.

“I was surprised how happy the students looked,” she said. “They were very organized, very disciplined.”

Marie Smith sent her daughter to McKinley High for ninth grade this year, but she’s not staying; she’s trying Baton Rouge Magnet again and, failing that, private schools.

She said safety is her main concern. A student fight sent a kid to the hospital earlier this year, Smith said, though she’s not aware of any problems involving gifted students.

“I’m not the parent who’s going to wait around to find out if it gets better,” Smith said.

Colleen Buras is looking at McKinley and Woodlawn high schools but said as an alternative may homeschool her son a year and in 10th grade send him to Louisiana School for Math Science, and the Arts, a public boarding school for higher performing students in Natchitoches.