In a cavernous gym on Cadillac Street, a few blocks from Glen Oaks High School, about 40 people sat down Wednesday afternoon to say their piece about public education in East Baton Rouge Parish and what they think could make it better.
“We need to talk about the good things are happening in this district,” said the Rev. Clee Lowe, pastor of Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church, a church in Scotlandville that has many educators in its congregation.
“We need more stable faculty,” said Carolyn Johnson, a former elementary school principal, now program director of the character education program Manners of the Heart. She suggests multiyear teacher contracts as an answer.
“Music is extremely important because it’s teamwork, organization and discipline,” said Phillip Wright, a member of St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge who volunteers at a music-based after-school program at a community center in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.
Scenes like this will be repeated over the next two weeks as members of the public gather for more “listening sessions.” The second session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Scotlandville High, 9870 Scotland Ave. The final session on Feb. 12 is at Northeast High School in Pride.
The initiative is called Beyond Bricks EBR. It’s an attempt to develop a community agenda for Baton Rouge education drawn directly from what people say.
Wednesday’s session occurred at lunchtime at the BREC center on Cadillac Street. Each table at the center had a facilitator and a “scribe” who took notes. Those notes will be compiled and analyzed once the sessions are over.
Gwendolyn Johnson’s table was lively, but she sat silently and listened. A volunteer at the BREC center, she said afterward that she enjoyed what she heard and sympathized with the plight of educators.
“Teachers can’t do it alone,” she said. “Parents need to step up.”
Still, she worries about her grandchildren, both in different middle schools that have problems. Her granddaughter, she said, attends a middle school next door, North Banks Middle, and while the academic part is fine, that’s all there is.
“There’s no dance, there’s nothing else for her there,” the grandmother said.
Using arts and music as motivation for students to stay in school came up repeatedly.
Ronald Johnson, who was at the same table, used his lunch break from Glen Oaks High to sit in on one of the sessions. He bemoaned a rule that high school students reach a minimum 2.0 grade-point average before they can participate not just in sports but in extracurricular activities such as band and choir, saying students who fall short lose interest in school. He noted that other school districts in Louisiana require only a 1.5 gpa for such activities. He used his own experience as an example.
“I was not an A student. I was a C student. But I played the saxophone,” he said.
Echoing others in the group, Donald Smith, a lawyer who works with a group called Against All Odds that tries to help young folks avoid lives of crime, said he wants Baton Rouge to return to the type of community schools that were predominant when he was a kid. He cited Scotlandville High School as a community school that should be emulated.
“It’s just like church,” Smith said. “Everyone knows each other.”
The quality of teachers in Baton Rouge generated some discussion.
“This school district needs to stop recycling ineffective teachers,” Lowe said.
Most teachers are tenured, so it’s hard to fire them, Ron Johnson suggested.
“You can fire tenured teachers,” Carolyn Johnson said firmly.
Afterward, Wright said he was surprised how much agreement there was at his table.
“We all came from different backgrounds, but the threads all wove together,” he said. “We had the same views.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.