School revamp facing a dilemma

Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s plans to revamp public schools throughout Baton Rouge may result in the school system giving up as much as $2 million in special federal assistance.

The changes are being proposed as part of a “framework for discussion” Taylor released in November at a series of community forums.

While the changes will affect as many 36 different schools, six schools could be specially affected. Taylor has not said when the changes will occur, but said some will begin in fall 2013.

Capitol, Delmont, Merrydale and Park elementaries, Mayfair Middle, and Glen Oaks High schools are all receiving about $400,000 a year in federal School Improvement Grants. All six schools are set to receive almost $7.5 million over a three-year period.

These grants, awarded in May 2011, come from a pool of $3 billion that Congress approved as part of the 2009 federal stimulus act. In return for the money, schools promise to make big changes in the ways they operate in hopes of spurring student achievement.

In a Nov. 29 interview, Taylor said he doesn’t know exactly what will happen with the School Improvement Grants if his plans go through, but acknowledged that it’s possible the school system may have to return at least some money to the state.

Taylor has yet to finalize his plans. He’s planning to first hold more community forums to gather more input.

In response to an inquiry, the state Department of Education issue a one-sentence statement: “The department is working with the East Baton Rouge school system on its proposed school transformation plan to better determine how any proposed changes could affect the district’s School Improvement Grants.”

In March 2011, the U.S. Department of Education answered “frequently asked questions” about the School Improvement Grant program.

In response to a question on what happens if a school district closes a school that gets one of these grants, the federal agency observed that such a move “should be exceedingly rare” but might be warranted under “certain rare circumstances that could not have been foreseen” at the time of the original application.

In the event of a school closure, the guidance said that state departments of education will have to decide whether to revise a school’s grant budget or to end the grant early and give it to other public schools that qualify for the program.

The six Baton Rouge schools began receiving the federal money in the 2011-12 school year and the grants expire at the end of the 2013-14 years.

Taylor’s plans, however, call for revamping five of the six schools; only Glen Oaks High School would emerge unscathed. Those five schools are set collectively to receive about $2 million in school improvement grants during the 2013-14 school year.

Delmont Elementary and Mayfair Middle schools are getting the most severe treatment.

Delmont would be closed and the nearby Rosenwald prekindergarten center would move onto the Delmont campus.

Mayfair Middle would be shut down and replaced by a new dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet program.

Capitol, Merrydale and Park elementary schools would shift from traditional elementary schools to schools serving fewer grades but taking in students from a wider geographic area.

Capitol would serve prekindergarten to second grades, Merrydale would serve grades three to six, and Park would serve only sixth grade.

Two schools, Delmont Elementary and Mayfair Middle, are up for state takeover at the end of this school year, and Taylor’s plans for the school could avert the takeover of their campuses. The state already runs or oversees eight former East Baton Rouge Parish schools.

Taylor said he has heard from school supporters, especially from Delmont, but said the status quo is not an option and that we can’t just “hope and pray for improvement.”

“We need to see a better result, and we should have seen it yesterday,” Taylor said.

In Delmont’s first year under the federal grant, the school’s tests scores declined slightly, while Mayfair had a significant decline.

The other four schools that received the federal grants all improved. All remain F schools.

Studies of successful school turnarounds suggest they generally take at least three to five years to occur and can take longer — five to seven years — for middle and high schools.