The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is seeking up to $15 million in federal money to create STEM-themed magnet programs at Belaire High School and three schools that feed into it.
The school system, the second largest in Louisiana, has 21 schools already offering magnet programs, the best known at Baton Rouge Magnet High. On April 20, the School Board is scheduled to vote on whether to add new programs at Woodlawn middle and high schools.
If the federal magnet schools grant is successful, Belaire High would join that list, as well as feeder schools, Park Forest and Villa Del Rey elementaries and Park Forest Middle School. They would launch their programs starting in spring 2018.
The School Board gave its permission on March 16 to pursue the grant and the deadline to apply is Tuesday. School officials plan to turn in a 156-page application this weekend, ahead of the deadline.
It’s the third time in five years that the school system is pursuing this pot of money, which is known as the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. The school system’s application fell short in 2013, and fell short again a year ago.
Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs, said she’s hopeful this go-around. The U.S. Department of Education is giving districts that failed to land the grant last year a 10-point credit for the 2017 application cycle so that should give the school system an advantage, Porter said.
The school system is seeking as much as $3 million a year over the course of five years.
Applicants are supposed to be notified by Sept. 30 whether they have been awarded any money and, if so, the amount.
Belaire High and Park Forest Middle both have F letter grades, while Park Forest and Villa Del Rey elementary schools have D letter grades. None currently have magnet programs.
Magnets use the allure of specialized programming to try to create racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.
Superintendent Warren Drake said the added money should add to the appeal of the north Baton Rouge schools.
“I’ve heard so many times that we need a great program at every school,” Drake said. “This is an opportunity to get a great program at these four schools.”
The proposed magnets are all based in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. They involve courses in renewable energy, computer science, entertainment technology and film, and digital animation.
Last year’s application called for STEM-themed magnets at three different schools: Istrouma High, Howell Park Elementary and Broadmoor Middle schools.
Porter said STEM courses have a research base that the school system is citing in its application, noting that federal officials "want data to show that those programs work.”
Porter said the four schools in the current grant application were chosen partly because of their potential to earn higher scores from federal evaluators. For instance, as part of a school feeder pattern, they are “vertically aligned,” she said. Also, the schools are predominant black, meeting federal minimum threshholds for the grant.
“They want to make sure there is opportunity to diversify the schools,” Porter explained.
Federal grant rules also favor magnet programs that don’t use test scores and grades as selection criteria, which is the norm in most East Baton Rouge magnet programs.
Instead, Porter said the four schools in the application will employ less restrictive criteria such as requiring portfolios of student work or sit-down interviews. In additins, students will have to maintain their grades to stay in the programs, what are known as retention requirements, she said.
While generally supportive, School Board members raised some concerns when the issue came up March 16.
Board member Michael Gaudet questioned how adding the four magnet programs fit into the school system’s larger goals when it comes to magnet programs.
“I question having a grant program drive where we want to implement magnet programs rather than us strategically determining where we want to implement magnet programs,” Gaudet said.
In a similar vein, Board member Jill Dyason said she wanted more time to discuss how adding magnet programs at the schools fit into the parish’s strategic goals.
Dawn Collins, who represents the Belaire area, supported the grant proposal.
Collins has been outspoken in pressing the school system to add more attractive programs to her schools to try to lure back some of the many families opting out of the neighborhood schools. She recently cited the lack of such programs as her reason for opposing a separate plan that would merge 11 schools in north Baton Rouge and make changes at many others.
But when it comes to the magnet grant, Collins said she hopes, if landed, it will strengthen the quality of the teachers in the schools in her area. She noted that the most popular magnet programs in town are located elsewhere and draw away the strongest teachers.
“This (grant) seems to be a great way to solve some of that inequity,” she said.