Organizer: BR charter schools must be excellent or risk losing public support

As a new wave of charter schools readies to break across north Baton Rouge, supporters gathered Thursday to say the Capital City is poised for a rare opportunity to change public education, but the window to do so is short.

“This place is ready. It’s primed. It’s ready to go,” said Chris Meyer, co-founder and chief executive officer of New Schools for Baton Rouge.

The opportunity could pass by if the moment is mishandled, Meyer warned.

“Everything we roll out from here on forward has to be great, or we run a great risk later,” he said.

Meyer’s group hosted the Education Ecosystem Summit at the Shaw Center for the Arts downtown. About 75 people attended.

New Schools for Baton Rouge, formed in 2012, is best known for its efforts to recruit charter school management organizations to run schools in north Baton Rouge. New Schools also raises money to help those schools get up and running.

Thursday’s summit shows the group branching into other areas, namely trying to bring together education entrepreneurs to tackle bedeviling issues, to fill what Meyer describes as “gaps” in the city’s emerging “ecosystem” of education.

The summit agenda included such issues as: expanding prekindergarten, increasing the supply of good educators or “human capital” to Baton Rouge schools, and establishing a facilities fund to help finance new space for future schools.

Four charter groups are opening their doors in north Baton Rouge in August, occupying space in schools overseen by the state-run Recovery School District that were formerly part of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Three of the charter groups were recruited by New Schools for Baton Rouge.

“This August, there are kids who will step off the bus and stop onto a better trajectory in life,” predicted Catherine Pozniak, co-founder and chief operating officer of New Schools for Baton Rouge.

The RSD in Baton Rouge has had a poor record so far. Most of its schools have struggled with low test scores, declining enrollment and frequent staff and leader turnover.

The Rev. Raymond Jetson, pastor of Star Hill Baptist Church and moderator of one of Thursday’s panels, warned the new charter groups that the “very failed effort” has left some hard feelings.

“There are many in this community who are mindful of that,” Jetson said.

Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via a contract, or charter.

Leaders of traditional public schools in Louisiana often oppose charter schools because they draw away students, and consequently money.

East Baton Rouge Parish is home to 14 charter schools.

Besides the four new RSD charters, three charter groups not affiliated with RSD are opening schools this August.

That will bring the total to 21 charter schools.

State lawmakers are poised to make the environment in Baton Rouge even more charter hospitable.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, has filed and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber is developing legislation to reorganize the parish school system so it resembles something closer to a charter management organization.

The power of the School Board would shrink, superintendents would become more like chief executives, Central Offices would be gutted and most power would devolve to school principals. Such principal autonomy is native to charter schools, much more so than at traditional public schools.

The participants in Thursday’s summit included some of the players in the charter school movement in Baton Rouge, but there were notable exceptions.

Meyer’s group chooses carefully which groups it aligns with, focusing on what he describes as the “IBMs of the charter school space.”

“We have passed up opportunities along the way that could have been short-term wins,” he said.

The strategy is due in part to the poor track record of RSD in Baton Rouge up until now, but also to education research suggesting that maintaining a high bar for quality produces better results over the long term.

On Thursday morning, a panel explored that issue.

Much of the discussion focused on what lessons to draw from New Orleans, which since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has built up the highest concentration of children in charter schools in the country.

“We took what was one of the worst-ranked school districts in the nation and stabilized it, but we haven’t reached excellence,” said Neerav Kingsland, of New Schools for New Orleans, the group that served as the model for New Schools for Baton Rouge.

Kingsland said just getting rid of the old Orleans Parish school bureaucracy helped lift the schools. He said the New Orleans experience shows that government should regulate but not run schools.

Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, said the center, part of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., has released a series of studies suggesting charter schools are improving slowly, but are performing at roughly the same level of traditional public schools.

Louisiana, especially New Orleans, is an exception to that finding, with sizable and growing academic gains over the past few years, according to the center.

Raymond said successful schools tend to start off successful from the beginning.

“Be careful about who you let in,” she said of prospective charter schools. “There are no silk purses made out of sow ears.”

Philadelphia is somewhere between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in its education reform effort, said Mike Wang, managing director of Philadelphia School Partnerships.

Wang, once a teacher in Baton Rouge as well as education policy adviser to former Gov. Mike Foster, advocated a balance between being willing to spark controversy in advancing goals and continually trying to find common ground with opponents, including in his case, the teacher’s union in Philadelphia.

“We disagree probably 98 percent of the time, but for that 2 percent we’re sitting down every week at the table trying to find common ground,” he said.