Photos: Amid sweltering heat, first-day jitters, thousands of East Baton Rouge students return to school _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Lee Magnet High Schoolers pile off the bus for the first day of school. Kids return from summer break Thursday back to EBR public schools. EBR is one of many school districts that reopened Thursday. Many more are opening up next week.

With the application period starting in just three weeks, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday agreed to require that students in grades four to 11 take a special standardized test if they want to gain admittance to most of the district’s magnet schools.

Lee High School, which has had a schoolwide magnet program since 2013, is changing its requirements to include the new, still-to-be-purchased test. The high school’s new admission standards also call for incoming students to have a cumulative 2.5 grade-point average for the four previous semesters. Heretofore, Lee High has required students to complete a portfolio, sit for an interview and keep their grades up once enrolled, what is known as a retention requirement.

Also on Thursday, the School Board agreed to a $71,800 contract with Baton Rouge-based Contrast Films LLC to produce promotional videos for the magnet program as well as for general publicity. School district Communication Director Adonica Duggan, who started in July, said she needs videos completed quickly. She said she worked with the company previously when she was with Zachary public schools. Contrast Films also produced a video for the convocation held at Bethany World Prayer Center at the start of the current school year, she said.

Thursday’s votes were unanimous, though board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith was absent.

The initial application period for Baton Rouge magnet schools for the 2016-17 school year starts Oct. 12 and ends Dec. 5. On Oct. 10, the school system has scheduled its annual Magnet Mania at Cortana Mall.

The shift to school system-purchased screening tests was prompted by concerns about ongoing changes in state-mandated standardized tests. Tests from PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, were given in the spring and sparked considerable controversy but may not be given again as state leaders debate their future. The results from spring testing won’t be released for another month.

The school system has solicited proposals from testing companies to offer two years’ worth of norm-referenced standardized tests but has yet to settle on a vendor. Norm-referenced tests compare test-takers with a norm group composed of a representative sample of students across the country. The results, expressed as percentile rankings, give test-takers an idea of how they compare with rest of the nation.

Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton said prospective magnet students will need to score at least in the fifth stanine on the test, meaning they would be on a par with at least 50 percent of the country. She said the school system may accept students who score a bit lower depending how the results of testing shake out.

“We’re asking the board for a little leeway, not much,” Clayton said.

Testing likely is to occur in November, and school officials are trying to set it up so it will not take too much instructional time and won’t cost more money to administer in terms of staff time.

The tests would apply only to magnet schools that require test score results for admission, and almost all do. Lee High, however, has been a prominent holdout. No longer.

Superintendent Warren Drake has argued that a higher standard for Lee High is necessary because of the increased rigor demanded by the type of school Lee is developing into, namely an early college program with a heavy focus on science and math.

Baton Rouge Magnet High has long required incoming students to have a minimum 2.5 GPA and to be on grade level or better on standardized tests. Nan McCann, who is the principal of Baton Rouge Magnet and, since June 2014, principal of Lee High as well, was present Thursday night but did not speak.

Leslie Defley, an active parent at Lee High, objected to the new admission requirement, saying it conflicts with how the high school has developed since it reopened in 2012.

“We wanted an alternative to Baton Rouge High, a school for people on a different path in life,” she told the board.

“I encourage you not to force these kids to fit into a box,” she said.

Former Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who was heavily involved in the transformation of Lee High, was against barriers to entry to most magnet schools. The limited admission requirement for Lee High also reflected the fact that Baton Rouge south of Interstate 10 offers little when it comes to high schools. McKinley High near LSU is the district’s only other public high school south of I-10.

Board member Connie Bernard, who represents the area, successfully persuaded Drake to give special preference to a “priority zone” set aside for students who live in the south Baton Rouge attendance zone that Lee High last used in 2013 as well as those living within 2 miles of the school.

Lee High is in the midst of a $54.7 million rebuilding set for completion in August. Its enrollment, currently 463 students, is supposed to more than double to about 1,200 students soon after its new building opens. A total of 98 current Lee High students live in the school’s old attendance zone.