Official says transformative change needed
Supporters of a new Baton Rouge Achievement Zone, starting with nine public schools in north Baton Rouge and growing over time, are trying to raise as much as $30 million over the next year for an array of services, a top state education leader announced Monday.
Speaking to the Baton Rouge Press Club, Louisiana Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said these schools need transformative change to ensure the students have the chance at a successful adult life. “We have a critical needs patient, and we have just have been doing triage for the past decade,” he said.
The fundraising efforts are being led by New Schools for Baton Rouge, a group founded in November by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. It hired Chris Meyer, a former deputy superintendent of the Recovery School District an agency formed in 2004 to turn around low-performing schools in New Orleans and a smaller number in the rest of the state.
Five of the nine Achievement Zone schools are run by RSD. Dobard said the $30 million target for the zone schools includes both cash and in-kind contributions, and the goal is to raise that money from private sources by the end of the 2012-13 school year.
Dobard announced the creation of the Achievement Zone last week at Capitol High School, one of the initial nine schools in the zone. At least 12 different groups led by Entergy have pledged to be involved in the zone.
Several of the groups originally banded together last fall for a similar effort with Istrouma High School called the Istrouma School Zone Initiative. The RSD, however, is taking over Istrouma to add to its zone. The agency has persuaded Entergy et al to come along as well and expand their work to help Capitol and Istrouma high schools, Capitol, Dalton, Lanier and Park elementaries, and Capitol, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools.
Dobard has also invited East Baton Rouge Parish public schools and other charter schools in north Baton Rouge to join the zone as long as they are charter or charter-like schools that give their leaders greater autonomy over budget and personnel than traditional public schools.
In addition to its fundraising work, New Schools for Baton Rouge is trying to persuade charter management groups with good track records to apply for schools in Baton Rouge.
Dobard said north Baton Rouge, like many poverty-filled areas in Louisiana, has a host of challenges and needs people to unite, not divide.
“Let’s not become distracted about politics and governance, and let’s focus on what we can do to move from a war zone to an achievement zone,” Dobard said.
Dobard spoke at length Monday about New Orleans, which has the highest concentration of charter schools in the country, most of them formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “I firmly believe we can replicate the success we’ve had in New Orleans in Baton Rouge,” he said.
As part of the shift toward a more New Orleans-style school model, six of the nine Achievement Zone schools could be converted into charter schools as early as fall 2013, and the other three could follow in fall 2014, as long as the state finds high-quality charter operators.
The state on Friday released a request for proposals seeking new private charter management groups for RSD schools, including zone schools.
As part of the rollout of the Achievement Zone, Dobard has offered a series of statistics highlighting problems in Baton Rouge public schools and promoting New Orleans schools.
Not all of them are accurate.
For instance, Dobard has rightly pointed out that 25 East Baton Rouge Parish schools are takeover targets if they do not improve sufficiently in the next four to six years — actually 24, since the state is taking over Istrouma High. That’s out of 76 East Baton Rouge Parish schools that have received letter grades from the state.
Dobard also noted that the school system’s district performance score has grown 14.1 points over the past several years.
Dobard, however, has claimed that the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has a 9 percent high school dropout rate. However, during 2010-11 school year, the dropout rate for students in grades nine to 12 in parish schools was 4.9 percent, a bit worse than the statewide rate of 4.1 percent. The state did not calculate a dropout rate for RSD schools that year.
To highlight the upside of New Orleans’ school experiment, Dobard said that since 2007, charter schools in New Orleans have seen their average school performance score grow from 52 to 78. He said the percentage of students on grade level has grown from 23 to 48 percent in all RSD schools in New Orleans during that time.
New Orleans, however, still has a lot of work to do. Twenty-one of its schools still earn F grades, and 18 more are in “academic warning,” meaning they will have Fs next year if they do not improve.
“Let’s focus on the growth,” Dobard urged. “Look at where they came from.”