School Board looks at expanding pre-K, magnet, gifted programs

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board discussed the need Monday to expand its magnet, gifted and talented, and especially its pre-kindergarten programs, but came up empty when talk turned to where the district would find the funding and space for such an expansion.

The programs are among the school system’s most popular offerings with the district struggling over the years to meet demand.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor is seeking to expand pre-kindergarten from the 2,400 slots it has to about 3,400, which would cost $29 million more a year.

When asked how to pay for that expansion, Taylor said it’s hard because of expenses, especially payments to charter schools that are starting to crowd out other programs.

Cuts will have to be made, he said.

“What are we not going to do if we prioritize this?” Taylor asked.

School Board member Barbara Freiberg, however, pressed Taylor to keep trying.

“You say we can’t afford to have a pre-K program,” Freiberg said. “We can’t afford not to.”

Taylor hinted that a new tax might be the ultimate solution.

“I think we’re going to have to invest in our future,” he said.

Parent David Timell said pre-K is a program he follows closely and considers very important, and he wants the school system to expand it.

In his case, Timell said, he is trying to get his child into pre-K at Parkview Elementary.

“If our kid doesn’t get into that school, we’re considering leaving the system,” Timell said.

Last month, the School Board heard from Gary Asmus, of Baton Rouge, who conducted longitudinal research, which involves studying the same group of individuals over an extended period of time.

He found children who attend pre-K in Baton Rouge are doing much better over time than their peers who did not, confirming several early childhood education research studies conducted in other places.

The school system has maintained pre-K enrollment in recent years, but is paying an increasing share of the costs as state support for the program has declined. Still, more than 700 families are on a waiting list, hoping their child gets in.

Magnet and gifted and talented programs are also proven draws for middle-class families in a school system predominated by children who live in poverty. The selection standards for gifted students is substantially higher than those for magnet students.

Leaders of both programs gave long, detailed presentations Monday night.

Anna Fogle, president of the parish’s Gifted and Talented Association, said she was glad to see all of the information and hopes it will lead to solutions down the road.

“We do have lots of questions,” Fogle said.

Board member Connie Bernard said she’s concerned about a lack of space to accommodate some of the growth in elementary grades in these programs.

“I’m very concerned that we don’t have the real estate for all of these programs,” Bernard said.

The issue of space has reached a head at the most popular public school in town, Baton Rouge Magnet High, pitting magnet against gifted and talented students.

Baton Rouge Magnet is the school system’s flagship high school. It’s one of the highest rated public schools in Louisiana with almost 1,500 students and a regular supply of National Merit scholars.

Magnet students get preferred admission to that high school and over time are taking up more of the slots in the freshman class.

This year, only seven children who had not attended a magnet middle school or were siblings of students already at Baton Rouge Magnet High gained admittance. Although it doesn’t offer gifted services, the high school has an array of honors and advanced placement courses.

To meet that demand, the school system is highlighting its other high schools. McKinley and Woodlawn high schools both have gifted and talented programs, but they are much smaller programs and are part of large, traditional high schools.

“I don’t want people to feel they are getting second best by not going to Baton Rouge Magnet High,” Taylor said.

Parent Julie Sheffield, who has two children in the gifted program, suggested rather than having gifted classes as part of a school, dedicate the entire school to a gifted program, much as Baton Rouge Magnet is dedicated for magnet students. She said such a school system would bring in money.

“It would directly attract a lot of kids back from private schools into the gifted program,” she said.