Inside Report: EBR school plan - bold or foolish?

A few months stretched into more than 2½ years. Still, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board finally did it. On Aug. 15, the board approved a new wide-ranging strategic plan.

Those 27 months of work are likely a cakewalk compared to the 84 months ahead.

The centerpiece of this plan is a self-proclaimed “bold goal” set in June 2011 and unchanged since: By 2020, the parish school system will rocket from near the bottom into the top 10 academically in Louisiana.

It’s a goal that’s more than bold; it has the air of folly to it. A little history reveals why.

Since Louisiana began grading school districts in 1999, East Baton Rouge has hovered around the same spot year after year. Its current rank among Louisiana’s school districts No. 51 out of 71 districts. Its rank in 1999? No. 52.

That’s not to say the East Baton Rouge Parish school system hasn’t improved academically, as measured by state school accountability benchmarks. It has.

In 1999, East Baton Rouge earned a 59.8. By 2012, its performance score had grown to 92.9. That was enough to advance it from a D to a C under the state’s new letter-grade system.

That growth, however, is not reflected in the district’s ranking, because other districts have improved at similar, sometimes faster, rates. So, despite substantial growth last year, the East Baton Rouge system’s ranking actually fell, from No. 48 to No. 51.

The upshot is the new strategic plan gives the parish school system seven years to do what it didn’t come close to doing in 14 years.

The plan suggests two possible speedways to Louisiana’s Top 10:

Improve student achievement at a fast rate year after year, faster than the state as a whole and every school district in it.

Attract middle-income students back to the school system, students whose very presence raise test scores.

To turbo-charge academic achievement, the strategic plan focuses on attracting, retaining and rewarding the best teachers, giving principals much greater financial and operational authority, and improving the quality of classroom teaching in general.

To make schools more attractive to middle-income families, the plan offers multiple prescriptions, ranging from improving the drawing power of neighborhood schools to greater school choice.

After teachers’ unions launched a late attack, the School Board dropped a controversial proposal to fire those teachers each year who rank among the bottom 25 percent statewide, based on student performance. Instead, the board will fire teachers evaluated annually as “ineffective,” likely no more than 10 percent of the teaching force.

The final strategic plan doesn’t specify how its prescriptions are going to be paid for, though it does call for a cost-reduction study and for privatizing nonclassroom services.

It doesn’t say how East Baton Rouge Parish will pull away from the crowd. That’s a special problem since its recommendations resemble what many other districts are already doing, or simply reflect state law.

The plan also offers no direct guidance for dealing with competition from charter schools or the continued threat of a pullout by southeast Baton Rouge.

That’s left to Superintendent Bernard Taylor. He and his successors have their work cut out for them.

Charles Lussier covers education in East Baton Rouge for The Advocate. He can be reached at clussier@theadvocate.com.