EBR feeling pinch at elementary level
Deborah Clark was finally fed up.
Her granddaughter, during three years at Broadmoor Elementary, was routinely getting into fights with another girl, whom Clark said was a bully, forcing Clark to routinely leave work and rush to the school.
“It seems like every other day, there were some things they couldn’t iron out,” Clark said.
She briefly considered looking into private schools, then learned about the new Baton Rouge Charter Academy at Mid City. After doing some research and attending an informational meeting, she agreed to transfer Ednijaha Bindon, now 9, to the school.
Ednijaha was one of 516 students enrolled as of Oct. 1.
Enrollment numbers from individual schools and districts The Advocate obtained suggest the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system is feeling the pinch as it competes for students with charter schools and private schools accepting vouchers.
And the battle ground appears to be the younger students.
Many students enrolling at Baton Rouge Charter and schools like it are similar to Ednijaha, children from families unsatisfied with the traditional public schools, though it’s not clear how many students this involves.
Incoming kindergartners are bypassing traditional public schools altogether when they enroll at charter schools, or, since summer 2012, private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers.
Thousands of children attend 14 charter schools in Baton Rouge, two of them online schools. The other new charter school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Key Academy, catering to students with dyslexia, has about 125 students enrolled this year.
Charter schools are public schools run privately.
Also, about 1,300 children attend 21 voucher-taking private schools in Baton Rouge, almost double the number of students participating last year.
Both charter and private schools are focusing their recruitment on children in early grades, though their growth plans call for them to take in more older kids over time.
About 700 fewer students were enrolled in elementary grades in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system on Oct. 1 compared with the same day a year before.
The Oct. 1 numbers are important because enrollment determines school funding. Each student represents roughly $10,000 per school year.
That impact is blunted somewhat by modest growth in middle school enrollment, but there is little change in high school enrollment.
Overall, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system had 42,238 students on Oct. 1 at 85 schools, remaining one of Louisiana’s largest districts.
Still, that’s almost 500 fewer students than a year ago, and almost 1,100 fewer than Oct. 1, 2011.
To deal with the competition, the parish school system has created new schools, reconfigured old ones, and, in the Scotlandville area, is letting some parents choose which schools their children will attend.
Clark is not looking back. She’s joined the fledgling parent-teacher organization at her new school and is in regular contact with her granddaughter’s teacher.
At Baton Rouge Charter, problems are handled quickly, she said. For instance, a fellow third-grader was causing problems early in the year in Ednijaha’s class, but the school intervened quickly and found help for the boy.
Clark praises the new school’s emphasis on parent involvement, including a stipulation that all parents volunteer at least 20 hours each year, something she found lacking at Broadmoor.
Clark’s story is similar to that of Amanda Brown’s.
Brown’s son Justin, who is about to turn 9, was getting into fights in his second-grade class at Wedgewood Elementary in Baton Rouge, especially with one boy whom the mother describes as a bully.
Justin takes medication for ADHD and would get teased, she said. The mother was frustrated that the other boy’s misbehavior was ignored.
On the way to work, she would pass a billboard at the corner of Airline and Old Hammond highways advertising the Louisiana Scholarship Program, the state initiative allowing students in public schools with C, D and F grades to attend private school at public expense.
She’d already had the school in mind where she wanted to send Justin, and younger daughter, Arianna, 6.
“Hosanna,” she said. “I didn’t apply anywhere else.”
Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge is the biggest recipient of private school vouchers in Louisiana. Of the almost 700 students in the private Christian school, 480 receive vouchers, up from 281 a year ago, the first year the voucher program went statewide.
Principal Josh LeSage said Hosanna has placed most of its voucher students in the lower grades so the school can build a culture and exert greater influence on younger students.
He said he’s spoken to representatives from a few private schools that have taken in high school-age students in greater numbers.
“Schools that have done it have regretted it,” LeSage said.
Brown said both of her children are happy with the switch to Hosanna, saying they are safe and getting challenged academically.
“They’re learning more,” she said. “Even though it’s more homework, my son is used to it now.”
Twenty-three elementary schools, just shy of half of those in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, lost 10 or more students compared with a year ago. At the same time only 14 schools gained 10 or more students compared with Oct. 1 last year.
Ryan Elementary led the way in gains, adding 139 students.
Principal LaDarrion Jackson took over the small elementary school in January and inherited a reputation for strong academics.
That record in 2010 was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education with a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence honor. The principal from those days, Darlene Brister, is Jackson’s supervisor.
Jackson said the latest enrollment growth is partly the result of the closure last year of nearby Scotlandville Elementary.
Another factor: the school choice experiment allowing students in the Scotlandville area to attend elementary schools out of their zone.
“A lot of people believe that teachers here actually care, because we go the extra mile to get what their children need,” Jackson said. “The real challenge is to live up to those expectations, and we do everything we can to meet them.”
Elementary schools are bright spots in the otherwise poorly attended state-run Recovery School District, which operates seven schools and oversees one charter school in Baton Rouge, all formerly part of the parish school system.
Both Dalton and Lanier elementary schools added a few students compared with a year ago, but both are still below the enrollments they had when they were part of the East Baton Rouge system.
RSD, in East Baton Rouge, lost students at five of its schools and shed students overall. The RSD decline is most pronounced at Istrouma High and Prescott Middle schools, which have 126 and 115 fewer students, respectively, than they had on Oct. 1 a year ago.
Prescott may shrink even more; it has more than 60 students enrolled in eighth grade, but fewer than 30 in sixth grade.
The only RSD school showing notable enrollment growth is its only charter school, Kenilworth Science and Technology School, which increased from 521 to 563 students this year.
On Tuesday, RSD announced it is pulling the plug in May on all seven schools it operates now in East Baton Rouge. Instead, it will provide space for the formation of seven new charter schools in those same buildings over the next two years, four of them elementary schools.
RSD has tapped five organizations, only one group local, to start the charters and RSD will likely green light more charters in the future.
At present, Hosanna, 8850 Goodwood Blvd., can’t meet the demand.
In the past two years, LeSage said, he has had more 2,000 students apply to Hosanna, but fewer than 500 were accepted because of space limitations.
“That means three out of four of the people who applied to get in couldn’t get in,” he said.
Brown wasn’t sure if her children could get in and didn’t learn until July.
While a few prospective Hosanna families pulled out after the Louisiana Supreme Court in May ruled that the way the state funded the program was unconstitutional, Brown said she wasn’t deterred.
“God put us in this school for a reason,” she said.
East Baton Rouge Superintendent Bernard Taylor has responded to this competition in a variety of ways, including expanding magnet programs.
Mayfair Lab School, which is modeled after the well-known LSU Lab, began in August, already has about 170 students and is expected to add more in the future.
In a Sept. 16 appearance at the Baton Rouge Press Club, Taylor suggested that most new charter schools fail to offer help to struggling older students, the area of greatest need, and instead are offering variations on the status quo, too many of them run-of-the-mill elementary schools.
“Shouldn’t people come up with something a little different than what’s already here?” he asked.