The announcement three weeks ago that Redemptorist High will close when the school year ends in May is the latest in a series of changes that have left north Baton Rouge parents shopping for high schools but with fewer and fewer options.
In the past few years, three other high schools, two public and one private, have closed.
Meanwhile, other schools have repeatedly changed leaders, reconfigured or received low letter grades from the state that prompted students to head elsewhere.
New schools, mostly charter schools, slowly have been taking their place, but they are usually small and struggling to establish themselves. A couple have failed to meet their academic and enrollment targets, and are in danger of closing themselves. Others are still in the planning stages or growing only a grade at a time.
Several high schools surrounding north Baton Rouge, including Belaire, Broadmoor, McKinley and Tara, by contrast, are overcrowded and have limited space.
The choice parents face is whether to try out troubled, often smaller schools close to home, many without the amenities of a comprehensive high school, or travel to more established schools — if they can afford the tuition and their children have the grades to be admitted.
For now, many Redemptorist families are pinning their hopes on alumni efforts to keep the school alive for at least another year.
Ronda Ellison, who has a daughter in the 10th grade, attended a prayer vigil in the high school gym Thursday night. She said she has not started the search for alternatives because she has faith the school will be saved.
“Why so confident? Look at the supporters. This is family,” Ellison said.
Dorothy Carter’s son, Andrew, a ninth-grader at Redemptorist, is the latest of at least six generations of children who have attended Catholic school. Andrew, who suffers from dyslexia, has thrived both from the school’s special attention to dyslexia and its small size and welcoming atmosphere, his mother said.
“Not everyone is cut out for the big-league Catholic schools,” Carter said.
Redemptorist is one of four Catholic high schools in Baton Rouge and the only one located in the northern part of the parish. Each high school is independent with its own admission requirements. The other three schools are at or near their historic capacity.
“The Catholic Schools Office has asked principals of Catholic schools for special consideration in welcoming the students from Redemptorist Junior and Senior high schools,” said spokeswoman Donna Carville.
Closest to Redemptorist are Catholic High and St. Joseph’s Academy, which also are the most selective. Neither accepts taxpayer-funded vouchers from students who formerly attended C, D and F-rated public schools. Ninety-two students at Redemptorist are using vouchers, nearly half the student body.
St. Michael the Archangel, 13 miles to the southeast, does accept vouchers but has only a handful of children using the program.
Across the Mississippi River are two other options: St. John the Evangelist High School in Plaquemine, 21 miles to the south of Redemptorist, and Catholic High of Pointe Coupee in New Roads, 32 miles to the northwest. St. John has less than 10 voucher students, and the school in New Roads has 11.
The only other private high school in north Baton Rouge that accepts vouchers is the small Jehoveh-Jireh Christian Academy, 1771 North Lobdell Blvd. Like Redemptorist Junior and Senior high schools, though, Jehovah-Jireh posted low test scores last spring — so low it is barred from accepting new voucher students in 2015-16.
Some Redemptorist students are considering nonparochial school options further away.
Tenoa Alex, 16, a junior who attended what is now Redemptorist Elementary School starting in kindergarten, said he’s looking at Christian Life Academy, a private Christian school, the lab schools at Southern University and LSU, and Broadmoor High, a traditional public high school.
“This is the only place I know. It doesn’t even feel real yet,” Alex said. “I don’t think it’s going to hit us until the end.”
He said he has classmates who have to move yet again. They transferred to Redemptorist when Istrouma High, a large traditional public high school, closed last year.
“Everyone feels cheated,” he said. “I feel bad for the people just coming here.”
Overall enrollment in north Baton Rouge high schools is about 5,400 students, roughly what it was in 2000. Beyond that, though, things have changed significantly since the change of the century.
Istrouma High, which had almost 1,000 students in 2000, is closed. Capitol, Glen Oaks and Redemptorist high schools all have less than half the students they had in 2000. Baker High, which used to educate children in north Baton Rouge, likewise has lost more than half of its students.
So where are these children going instead?
Scotlandville High, for starters. That north Baton Rouge high school near Southern University has nearly 1,500 students, more than double its enrollment in 2000. Contributing to its popularity are such factors as the school has stayed out of academic trouble, maintains a strong connection to the Scotlandville community and has a popular magnet program.
Between 2009 and 2011, three new high schools have opened in north Baton Rouge. All are charter schools — public schools run by private groups via charters, or contracts.
The largest, Mentorship Academy — actually two high schools in one, with one focusing on science and math, the other focusing on digital arts — has almost 500 students. Madison Prep, which grew out of a middle school known as CSAL and opened in 2009, has 346 students. Finally, Career Academy, a career-oriented high school that opened in 2011, has about 300 students.
Only one, Madison Prep, is out of jeopardy of closing. Its enrollment is stable and it has a C academic grade, up from a D. It’s the highest-performing high school in north Baton Rouge.
Mentorship Academy has shown improvement academically, but the half of the school that focuses on science still has a failing grade and the whole school has about half the students it projected would enroll when it started.
Career Academy barely managed to stay open last year after being kicked out of its campus. It since has found space at Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Scotlandville. The school, however, has a low F grade, which puts it in jeopardy of being closed, perhaps at the end of this year unless it can work something out with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which oversees its charter.
Josh LeSage, principal of Hosanna Christian Academy, last year went through the same experience Redemptorist High is experiencing now. After much internal debate, LeSage decided to close that Christian private school’s high school and focus solely on the elementary and middle school grades. That left 115 students hunting for a new high school.
While its 8850 Goodwood Blvd. campus is not technically in north Baton Rouge, Hosanna Christian is dominated by children from north Baton Rouge.
He said he hopes the alumni have good luck trying to keep Redemptorist open, but high schools, he added, are expensive. They require more faculty and class offerings than elementary and middle schools so students can obtain a diploma recognized by the state. High schools also usually offer a variety of sports and extracurricular options.
For LeSage, the magic number was having at least 250 students in the high school for it to make financial sense — Redemptorist is looking at enrolling as few as 150 students next year.
“In high school, you have to have a certain enrollment to have the funding to offer something for every single child,” LeSage said.
“I hate to say it, but I think Redemptorist is doing the right thing, given the situation they are facing,” he added.
Olivia McClure is a freelance writer for The Advocate.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Jan. 12, 2015, to reflect a more correct estimate of students attending Career Academy, a career-oriented high school that opened in 2011, which has about 300 students, not 3,000. Also, it was changed to reflect that Belaire, Broadmoor, McKinley and Tara high schools surround north Baton Rouge and are not in north Baton Rouge.