BR schools get late jump on training on new standards

Special training to help Baton Rouge public school teachers prepare for the 2015 arrival of standardized tests based on new educational standards known as Common Core won’t occur this summer as planned.

Facing resistance from several School Board members, East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor is setting aside a proposed four-year, $2.7 million contract with a Pittsburgh-based educational organization to supply this training. Instead, he is seeking proposals from interested groups to handle this work, meaning weeks, perhaps months, of delay.

Taylor said he plans to issue requests for proposals in the next several days in hopes of quickly finding a training provider and starting that training as soon as possible.

“We’re behind on this,” Taylor said.

It was not easy to persuade the board to let him even seek proposals.

The vote to seek proposals for Common Core training was 8-1, with only board member Vereta Lee in opposition. Board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith abstained and board member Tarvald Smith was absent.

The margin is misleading, though. A few board members who ended up voting in favor were still expressing doubts when the debate began Thursday night.

Board member Randy Lamana said it was a big mistake to not seek proposals in the first place. He said he also remains unsure about the necessity of such training given all the other training that teachers are getting in Common Core, pointing to a recent state-sponsored training in Lafayette.

“Really and truly, this process was not done properly,” Lamana said.

Board member Connie Bernard said Baton Rouge already has educators well versed in Common Core and they should be the first stop in any training to these new standards, which are being implemented in more than 40 states, including Louisiana.

“I just can’t see how we could send so much money to an outside vendor,” Bernard said.

Taylor pushed back. He said a district the size of East Baton Rouge with the academic challenges it has needs the best assistance it can get.

“Going to Lafayette for one or two days isn’t going to change anything,” he said.

“Look at the districts around the country, we’re behind,” Taylor said with passion. “I don’t want to be behind.”

Board members Barbara Freiberg and David Tatman sided with Taylor.

“This is a critical, critical piece of educational policy that we need to take care of right away,” Freiberg said.

Taylor had previously asked the board to hire the Institute for Learning, which is housed at the University of Pittsburgh. In early May, Taylor had institute representatives explain at length to the board the services they would provide.

The proposal ran into trouble when it came up again in June in part because of the $2.7 million price tag — $1.1 million the first year, $1.6 for the next three years. Taylor’s past connection with the institute, which he has hired in previous jobs, and with the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned all his academic degrees, also didn’t help.

In an interview Friday, Taylor said he still stands by his original recommendation. He notes that $2.7 million would have been paid for via federal Title 1 funding, not through the school system’s general operating fund, and it was a good price given the services being provided.

He also said that both in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he was last superintendent, and here, he only recommended hiring the institute after their proposals were reviewed by staff.

He said the upcoming requests for proposals will likewise be reviewed by relevant staff and it will be an open and transparent process.

He said he’s not sure whether the Institute for Learning will send a proposal, noting they have plenty of work with other districts.

He said Common Core represents an unprecedented challenge to public schools, especially ones in Baton Rouge, which, while showing progress, are still struggling academically.

“I’m just amazed at this belief that we can be leisurely in response to this,” he said.