BR’s Mentorship Academies under new leadership

Graysen Walles is the new executive director of The Mentorship Academy.
Graysen Walles is the new executive director of The Mentorship Academy.

The founding director of two high schools that moved into downtown Baton Rouge in 2010 amid promise and controversy is stepping aside in favor of a Georgia educator with a background in similar schools.

Brian Dixon, who worked as an administrator for High Tech High in San Diego before coming to Baton Rouge, is giving way to Graysen Walles, who is taking over as the executive director of the Mentorship Academies.

Bryan Jones, president of the Mentorship board, detailed the moves Friday.

“Brian is launching a private consulting firm I believe focused on leadership training, etc.,” Jones said in an email. “It is my understanding he is remaining in Baton Rouge.”

“Brian made the personal decision to pursue a private consulting career. He informed board leadership of his intentions a few weeks ago,” Jones said. “The board accepted his decision, then acted quickly to identify his replacement to ensure a smooth transition of leadership, particularly given we are in the initial weeks of a new school year.”

Jones said the board started recruiting Walles about a year ago.

“When Dr. Dixon informed the board of his intention to pursue a private consulting career, the board quickly recognized Dr. Walles was the best choice to succeed Brian and execute our strategic and academic growth plans,” Jones said.

“Dr. Walles has an exemplary record as a school leader focused on academic achievement. Prior to his hiring, Mentorship brought Dr. Walles to Baton Rouge on three occasions to train our teachers on setting classroom expectations, managing student data and methods to increase data-driven instruction. His previous schools have been widely recognized for results. We look forward to similar results at Mentorship,” Jones said.

The organization operates two high schools, both charter schools, in the former Regions Bank building in downtown Baton Rouge. One high school focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. The other high school focuses on digital animation. After four years of operation, this year is the first with a senior class, Jones said.

In a new release this week, Dixon says he is starting a private consulting firm, but will continue working with Mentorship for the next 60 days part time during the transition. Walles joined the schools’ staff as director of achievement this summer and was promoted to executive director on Aug. 23.

In his statement, Dixon said Walles is the right person to take over.

“His vision, focus on academic achievement and experience is exactly what Mentorship needs to best serve our more than 500 high school students,” Dixon said.

Walles most recently served as founding director of International Preparatory Academy, a K-8 school in Detroit. Prior to that job, Walles served as principal of Tech High in Atlanta from 2010 to 2012.

The high school, a charter school, focused, like Mentorship, on science and math before it closed after 16 years in operation due to declining enrollment and revenue and a funding requirement related to a retirement fund that Atlanta public schools placed on the school.

Prior to that Walles worked for eight years in Clayton County, in suburban Atlanta, where he founded the Elite Scholars Academy in Clayton County, Ga., a selective school which educates students year-round from grades six to 10.

Walles has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, and later earned certification in education leadership from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga. He also has a master’s degree in divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Convention based in Louisville, Ky., and earned a doctorate in education from Fielding Graduate University in Calif.

BP, the energy giant, gave $500,000 in seed money to launch the two new small Mentorship academies, money overseen by the LSU College of Education and Advance Baton Rouge, or ABR, which later handed the grant over to an offshoot organization called Advanced Innovative Education.

The proposal ran into problems when it was rejected initially in fall 2009 by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, and then deferred by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Despite skepticism, the parish School Board, with a push from then Superintendent John Dilworth and then LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, approved the charter in early 2010.

Since starting, the Mentorship academies have doubled in enrollment, but have fallen short of more ambitious enrollment growth targets. They also have struggled academically. Both schools earned Fs during the recent round of school performance scores.