Taylor: Input, not reactions

Hundreds of Baton Rouge residents showed up at last week’s four forums to learn about East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s plans to restructure the school system he’s been running since June.

While residents were looking for the details, Taylor had something else in mind.

“We want people’s input, not their reactions,” Taylor said of why little information about his plan was being released. “Maybe it’s easier to react to something than to put on your thinking cap and contribute.”

In broad strokes, Taylor said he is proposing to reconfigure and remodel public schools in four areas of Baton Rouge into “attendance regions.” Three of these regions are in north Baton Rouge and one is in southeast Baton Rouge.

Taylor described his proposals as a “framework for discussion,” acknowledging that it was a different kind of planning process than what people are used to. Still, he said, most people gave him useful feedback and in some cases, “very doable, solid recommendations.”

Taylor said he is processing the feedback he received from the forums and will have more details in the weeks to come.

“The planning process will start in earnest in late January,” he said. “It’s obvious that we will have to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time.”

Taylor said that, contrary to earlier statements, he will not be presenting the proposal at the Nov. 29 School Board meeting.

Introducing the plan

Monday through Thursday, Taylor visited forums held at Capitol Elementary, Scotlandville High, Woodlawn High and Glen Oaks High schools. Taylor has named the proposed attendance regions accordingly: Capitol, Scotlandville, Woodlawn and Glen Oaks.

“I was just really encouraged,” Taylor said. “It was a lot of forums and it was grueling, so we might not do four of them again. But it showed me that people really care about their kids’ education.”

The new attendance regions would be pilot programs, and Taylor said it’s likely he will expand the concept to other parts of the parish over time.

Each night, Taylor laid out different plans for each region. He did not provide maps, so it was unclear where the boundaries lie for each region.

Taylor was vague on the boundaries during an interview Friday, but suggested that they would largely correspond with the zones of their main high schools.

One common thread in each plan is increasing region-specific choice. The increased choice will mostly play out at the elementary school level where there are the most schools.

The idea is that students living within a region would not be limited to a traditional school attendance zone and, instead, could attend any traditional school in their region.

Taylor described the schools where this would apply as “families of schools.” The four large high schools in these regions would serve as the heads of these “families.”

Capitol and Glen Oaks

Taylor is proposing the most extensive changes for the Capitol and Glen Oaks areas. These changes would increase choices for parents but also eliminate a few current options.

He is calling for converting Claiborne and Melrose elementaries into dedicated, or schoolwide magnet schools.

He also would remake Belfair Elementary. It’s currently a traditional elementary school with a small Montessori magnet program.

Taylor’s idea is to make it a pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school focusing strictly on Montessori. And, like Claiborne and Melrose, would be solely a dedicated magnet school.

That would more than double the number of dedicated magnet schools in Baton Rouge that are located north of Florida Boulevard, increasing the total from two to five.

On Friday, Taylor cautioned that he wants new magnet programs to be more “inclusive” than the existing magnet schools in Baton Rouge such as Baton Rouge Magnet High School.

“I’m looking for innovation where we don’t look at admission requirements to keep kids out, but look at them to keep kids in,” Taylor said.

To accommodate neighborhood children displaced in Capitol and Glen Oaks, Taylor is borrowing an idea from smaller school districts, such as Baker, Central and Zachary.

The children in the same grade in those school districts are assigned to just one school. Those schools are sometimes called “grade centers.” The Zachary Learning Center, for instance, offers only prekindergarten, educating all the 4-year-olds in Zachary in one place.

So in that vein, most students in a single grade in the Capitol region would be assigned to just one school. They would all start at Capitol Elementary, go to Capitol Middle from grades three to five, go to Park Elementary for just sixth grade and spend seventh through 12th grades at Capitol High School.

The Glen Oaks region would be less concentrated but would follow a similar pattern. Children in a single grade would be assigned to up to two elementary schools in grades prekindergarten to five, but would be assigned to just one traditional school at a time in grades six to 12. Eighth through 12th grade would be held at Glen Oaks High.

To pull this off, the school system would create new grade configurations for 10 schools in those two regions.

Choice uncertainty

Taylor’s proposed changes for the Scotlandville and Woodlawn regions are more limited.

The main change would come from the existing schools competing for students. Taylor wants to create mini marketplaces where schools will compete against each other for students, likely with new academic programs and themes.

For instance, in the Woodlawn region students would have six traditional elementary schools from which to choose: Cedarcrest-Southmoor, Jefferson Terrace, Parkview, Wedgewood, Westminster and Woodlawn elementary schools.

Parents living in Cedarcrest-Southmoor’s zone, for instance, will have a chance to get their child into Woodlawn elementary, a school several miles away. That’s not an option available at present to Cedarcrest parents.

How the school system determines which students will get to go where is still being worked out.

At Wednesday’s forum at Woodlawn High School, this uncertainty didn’t sit well with some parents who bought a house so they could send their children to a particular school or set of schools.

The Woodlawn area is the center of an unsuccessful effort last spring to create a fifth public school district in East Baton Rouge Parish and supporters plan to try again in 2013.

RSD defense

Taylor’s plans also are clearly meant to deal with the threat posed by the state-run Recovery School District. The proposed changes might forestall, and even reverse, state takeovers at a series of low performing schools concentrated in north Baton Rouge.

RSD already oversees nine low performing former East Baton Rouge Parish schools, which it took over since 2008. Taylor proposes returning four of these schools to the control of the school system. Taylor said he wants to make three — Crestworth Middle, Glen Oaks Middle and Lanier Elementary schools — into charter schools, but ones that the school system oversees. Taylor is proposing that Capitol High School be a traditional high school, not a charter school.

Similarly, Taylor is proposing new grade configurations for three of the four other low-performing schools — Winbourne Elementary is the exception — for which the school system has short-term operating contracts with the state. The three schools are Capitol Elementary, Capitol Middle, and Park Elementary schools. The state has the option of taking over these schools, rather than continuing with the agreements.

The new dedicated magnet programs at Claiborne and Melrose elementaries might also prevent future state takeovers. Another idea of Taylor’s might also avert such a takeover: converting another low performing school, Mayfair Middle which is located in south Baton Rouge, from a traditional school to a dedicated, magnet school.

State reaction

In an interview Friday, state Superintendent of Education John White complimented Taylor.

“All in all, it’s a very positive first step,” he said.

White, Taylor and other RSD representatives have been in talks for months. A year ago, White proposed creating an Achievement Zone that would include all eight RSD schools in north Baton Rouge. White left the door open for public schools run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to participate in the zone as well.

White said he thinks Taylor’s attendance region ideas “complement” the Achievement Zone concept. White would not say where he stands on Taylor’s ideas to regain control of at least four RSD-run schools. White said he expects that RSD and the parish school system will form a “partnership” soon, but didn’t say when.

“We want his plan to be successful, and the Achievement Zone should support his plan rather than being an impediment to his plan,” White said.