Taylor proposing expansion of EBR magnets

East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor is proposing expanding magnet programs, but the bulk of the added seats are slated for elementaries, raising questions about whether middle and high schools will have the capacity to meet the potential demand.

Of the eight different new magnet programs Taylor has floated, five are at elementary schools, two are at middle schools and one is at a high school, Lee High. Lee is the only definite. Its program is set to begin when the 2013-14 school year starts in August.

During community forums in late January, Taylor laid out plans to convert three schools, Belfair, Claiborne and Melrose elementaries, to dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet schools by fall.

Filled to capacity, just adding those three schools would add more than 1,500 seats to the magnet program. Claiborne alone has space for more than 800 students. That school was rebuilt and expanded in 2011 at a cost of $17.2 million,

On Feb. 7, the School Board had planned to debate the proposed changes for those three schools, as well as many others, but Taylor asked the board to hold off in hopes of reaching an agreement with the state-run Recovery School District. He has proposed using three RSD schools to complete what he’s calling “families of schools” in three parts of north Baton Rouge. The superintendent has yet to reschedule the debate on those proposals.

Magnet schools are typically, but not always, selective-admissions schools that offer programs that are supposed to be “magnetic” so that they attract a diverse set of students. Many of the magnet schools in Baton Rouge require minimum grade point averages and test scores for admission.

Lee High’s new magnet program eventually will mean substantially more magnet seats at the high school level in Baton Rouge. But the additional seats won’t be available until the campus at 1105 Lee Drive is torn down, rebuilt and reopened in summer 2015.

When it reopens, the new Lee will have space for about 1,200 students. Enrollment projections suggest that roughly half of the students would live in the south Baton Rouge high school’s attendance zone and the other half would enroll in the new magnet program.

Until then, Lee’s magnet program is likely to remain small.

Lee High students are spending two years on the campus of Valley Park Alternative School. An old junior high, Valley Park has capacity for just 600 students, half of Lee’s eventual rebuilt capacity. That’s enough space for the projected neighborhood students but leaves limited room for a new magnet program unless new temporary buildings are added.

Taylor also has suggested expanding middle school magnet capacity, but those plans are limited so far.

In January, Taylor proposed expanding the size of Scotlandville Pre-Engineering Academy, housed at the former Beechwood Elementary. The school has fewer than 300 students. Taylor would move it onto the campus of Scotlandville Elementary, a move that would double the potential enrollment of the magnet program.

Taylor in November also floated the idea of converting Mayfair Middle, 9880 Hyacinth Ave., to a dedicated magnet school, but hasn’t mentioned the idea since.

More magnet changes could come later.

In September, Taylor floated the idea of creating small magnet-within-school programs at Broadmoor Middle, and at Polk and Magnolia Woods elementary schools.

Those three magnet programs, however, are not likely to begin until fall 2014 and will likely only get off the ground if the school system wins a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant, worth up to $4 million a year. The school system submitted its grant application last week.

The addition of a magnet program at Lee High could have ramifications for the other magnet schools.

Baton Rouge Magnet High is the destination school for students in elementary and middle magnet programs in the parish. Since 2004, students who successfully finished in those feeder programs have gained preferred admittance to Baton Rouge Magnet High. The prospect of getting into the system’s flagship high school has, through the years, proven a major draw for parents, students and the feeder schools.

Taylor, however, plans to add Lee High to the top of the magnet school progression chart, Susan Nelson, interim director of communications and external relations, said in an email Monday.

“The specifics are still being worked out, but we anticipate a clear feeder path to one high school or the other based on the numbers that are coming out of those magnet programs,” wrote Nelson, who joined the school system in early February.

Every year, Baton Rouge Magnet High has a waiting list. In an interview on Thursday, Taylor said he wants to create a school at Lee that is attractive in its own right, not simply a second choice for families whose students don’t get into Baton Rouge Magnet High.

The biggest demand for magnet slots, however, is in the elementary grades. In advance of the 2012-13 school year, 850 students applied to get into one of the elementary magnet programs, but ended up on waiting lists. That’s compared with 241 students and 139 students that year on waiting lists at the middle school and high school levels, respectively.