State forges rapprochement

After years of being at odds, the state of Louisiana is slowly forging a common approach with parish and municipal school districts, particularly East Baton Rouge, to give these districts greater say in the selection and placement of new charter schools.

This newfound harmony is fragile and will depend on how well the state and the districts bridge their diverging agendas and the demands of charter school applicants.

Charter schools are public schools run privately via short-term contracts, or charters. Local school districts, however, are often hostile to charter schools, seeing them as a financial drain and unwanted competition.

The state recently released a common application form for all would-be charter schools, while also unveiling a longer application process that lasts almost two years.

East Baton Rouge Parish and the state-run Recovery School District, or RSD, are going further. In November, the two parties reached a “memorandum of understanding” that, among other things, calls for a common way of picking new charter schools.

This partnership will get its first test this year as RSD tries to figure out what to do with seven schools it operates in north Baton Rouge. All are low-performing schools formerly operated by the parish school system.

These schools are Dalton and Lanier elementaries; Crestworth, Glen Oaks and Prescott middles; and Capitol and Istrouma high schools.

All but Istrouma, which joined RSD last summer, have had multiple principals since state takeover, as well as continued low student performance and high teacher turnover. They have had trouble attracting students and most have had financial problems as a result.

The state is hoping to locate new, high-quality charter groups to run these schools by August, and then the groups would take over these schools by August 2014. The deadline for charter groups to submit letters of intent is Feb. 22.

According to the memorandum of understanding, charter groups interested in these seven north Baton Rouge schools can apply to start either a Type 3 or a Type 5 charter.

Type 3 charters are those overseen by the local school district, in this case, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Type 5 charters are overseen by RSD; six of the seven RSD schools in north Baton Rouge were briefly Type 5 charter schools whose charters were cut short.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, would still have to give final approval to any Type 3 charter, according to the agreement.

“What I am hoping is BESE allows the right of first refusal to go to the school district,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor

Taylor said that given the RSD’s poor showing with those schools in the past, joining forces with the school system would confer more “legitimacy” on the resulting charter schools and a greater supply of students.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said he will deal with these charter school applications on a “case-by-case” basis. He said he plans to give a lot of deference to East Baton Rouge Parish’s wishes in these matters.

“I think that’s a good-faith effort that I would like to explore,” he said.

It’s unclear how many charter schools will want to do business with the parish school system, given the relatively limited role that Taylor has sketched out for charter schools in his developing school reorganization.

In a series of community forums in recent weeks, Taylor has said he wants new charter schools to focus on specific grades and to accept students only from specific “regions” with the parish, not the entire school district as is customary.

For instance, he wants Crestworth Middle to have just sixth and seventh grades, draw students only from the Scotlandville region and fit into a feeding pattern or “family of schools” that culminates with Scotlandville High School.

During the forums, Taylor said that these charter schools should teach a curriculum and at a level that complements the schools that would feed into them as well as the schools they would feed into.

Most experienced charter management organizations, however, come with their own instructional plans and designs, ones that may not mirror East Baton Rouge Parish’s approach.

Dobard said he plans to work with charters to find creative ways to meet the desires of East Baton Rouge Parish and still remain consistent with their own plans.

East Baton Rouge and RSD also will use the same third-party evaluator the state uses to review charter school applicants and to make recommendations. Dobard said the state is in the process of seeking this outside evaluator.

For the past few years, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, has served as that outside charter school evaluator for the state, as well as for some, but not all, school districts. Dobard said NACSA can reapply to continue in that capacity.

Jefferson and Lafayette parishes have also agreed, in the future, to use whatever third-party evaluator the state settles on. Districts that don’t go this route will have to pay their own external evaluator.

Dobard said he’s talked to other districts also interested in using this third-party evaluator, noting they would save money if they did so.