Schools chief Warren Drake decries beating of 12-year-old at football game: 'Our schools should be safe places' _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- East Baton Rouge School Superintendent Warren Drake

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake on Thursday said he’s pleased with the progress so far in his negotiations with state leaders to return the closed Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge to local control.

“We’re very close to reaching a deal where we get Istrouma High School back,” Drake told a small luncheon audience at Beausoleil Restaurant & Bar in Baton Rouge.

Drake spoke at the first of a series of luncheon talks organized by the Foundation for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. The luncheons will be held every other month. Drake spoke Thursday on his plans for high schools in the Capital City.

“There is no high school in 70805 (ZIP code),” Drake said. “We have to provide education for the students in north Baton Rouge. We have not done that very well. The education that we provided was inadequate.”

Since taking over the state’s second-largest public school district in June, Drake has repeatedly signaled his interest in getting Istrouma High back.

In 2012, the state Department of Education took over the chronically low-performing high school on Winbourne Avenue and placed it in the state-run Recovery School District. In 2014, RSD closed the school with the idea of handing it over to one or more charter schools.

Taking back the school won’t come cheap. In July, Drake pegged the cost of fixing the old school at about $10 million.

“We’re planning to put significant monies into Istrouma High,” Drake said Thursday.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said his office is having discussions with Drake on a “number of fronts,” not just the future of Istrouma High.

These include “creating more high-quality school options in north Baton Rouge.” RSD and the district are at an impasse over who’s responsible for what when it comes to making major repairs to the seven buildings RSD has control of in Baton Rouge.

Dobard said he’s cautiously optimistic at the prospect of reaching an agreement on at least some issues in the next two or three weeks.

“The responsiveness of EBR has been more in the last month than I was able to get in the last two or three years,” Dobard said.

While RSD still may place a charter school at Istrouma, the old high school is proving more than many charter school operators want to handle, Dobard said.

“It’s a huge facility,” he said.

Drake also offered thoughts Thursday on other Baton Rouge high schools.

He said he wants Lee High School to adopt minimum admission requirements similar to the magnet schools, including a minimum GPA of 2.5. The school now requires an interview and the submission of a portfolio of work, but while students currently don’t need a 2.5 GPA to get accepted, they do need to earn a 2.5 GPA once they’re in and maintain it to stay in the south Baton Rouge school.

The School Board plans to vote on the proposed change when it meets again Sept. 17.

Drake said students who live either within 2 miles of Lee High, or within the school’s old attendance zone, last in effect in 2013, would have a better shot of admittance under his proposal.

The high school is undergoing a $54.6 million rebuilding, which will be complete by August 2016 and will feature separate schools focused on biosciences, engineering, and visual and performing arts.

“It’s going to be a place that nobody’s ever seen,” Drake said.

The superintendent said he is trying to line up partnerships with outside businesses such as Celtic Studios to help make the school a success.

He also talked about a new career-focused high school to be part of a mixed-use development in the Ardenwood area.

Drake said an architect is working on plans for a Career Academy, modeled after a program in Newnan, Georgia, which he visited a couple of weeks ago. He said junior and seniors will spend partial days at the school. The initial idea, subject to change, is to offer cosmetology, game design, micro-enterprise, computer architecture and health care, he said.