Taylor offers choice

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor is suggesting creating two new magnet programs and expanding a third in the north Baton Rouge neighborhoods near Capitol High School.

Taylor laid out these thoughts Monday at the first of four community forums, this one held at Capitol Elementary School and attended by more than 150 people.

Taylor said he wants to expand choices and thereby persuade families to try schools closer to home rather than overcrowding schools in more distant parts of town and sending their children on long bus rides.

The forums, which will continue through Thursday, are to gather public input on a plan Taylor announced last week to divide 36 public schools in Baton Rouge into four attendance regions where students could choose to attend any school in the region.

The plan is partially a response to a push by groups in southeast and south Baton Rouge to create new independent school districts similar to Baker, Zachary and Central. The plan is also an answer to the state’s effort to turn many north Baton Rouge schools into charter schools in a manner similar to the charter schools the state oversees in New Orleans, which the state is describing in Baton Rouge as an Achievement Zone.

The remaining community forums are set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Scotlandville High, 6 p.m. Wednesday at Woodlawn High and 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Glen Oaks High.

So far, Taylor has been specific only about the Capitol region. He said he plans to unveil region-specific plans each night, but not before then.

Taylor said families that choose existing magnet programs outside their region will still be able to do so, but now will have more options.

“We’re not dislocating anybody,” he said. “We are asking people what they want to do.”

Ten public schools in the Capitol region are Belfair, Capitol, Claiborne, Howell Park, Park and Winbourne elementary schools; Capitol Middle; Capitol High; and two schools chartered by the parish school system, the Career Academy and the Community School for Apprenticeship Learning.

Capitol High is being run by the state Recovery School District after years of low academic performance and several management changes. RSD had two representatives attending Monday’s meeting.

Taylor proposes a new ordering for the Capitol region:

Expand Capitol High into grades seven and eight.

Make Park Elementary, “Capitol at Park,” a school serving only sixth-graders.

Convert Capitol Middle school to “Capitol Intermediate School,” serving grades three to five.

Shrink Capitol Elementary from a traditional elementary to “Capitol Lower,” a school serving grades prekindergarten to two.

Convert Claiborne Elementary into a dedicated or “schoolwide” magnet school, sending its 800 current students to surrounding traditional schools.

Convert Melrose Elementary into a dedicated magnet school, but also add a gifted-and-talented program, sending its almost 600 students to surrounding traditional schools.

Expanding Belfair Elementary’s Montessori program from fifth grade all the way to eighth grade, and sending its 200-plus neighborhood students to traditional schools nearby.

The tentative schedule is to make these changes by fall 2013 for the start of the 2013-14 school year.

Taylor has said he hopes to have a formal plan ready for the School Board to vote on by the end of this month, and then would send the plan on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, in December.

BESE member Carolyn Hill, who represents the area and was at Monday’s meeting, said she hopes that the parish school system and the RSD can still reach agreement on schools in the RSD zone.

Failing that, she said BESE will give Taylor’s proposal a good look, saying she considers it “impressive.”

Bruce Miles, vice president of the Capitol High School Alumni Association, also said he too is impressed with Taylor’s ideas, saying it would give stability to a high school that’s been destabilized by changes in recent years.

“I like the direction of what’s he’s trying to do, but the big obstacle has been EBR and RSD working together and that’s what needs to happen,” Miles said.