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As students arrive, a banner welcomes everyone back to the school. Twin Oaks Elementary, a flooded Baton Rouge public school, reopened Monday Oct. 10, 2016, two months after the mid-August flooding. ItÕs one of eight EBR schools that flooded and is the first to come back online. Its teachers and students spent the last month in three different places.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

After weighing the idea for months, East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake on Thursday formally requested that the state give his 80-plus schools a one-year break from the consequences of school accountability because of the severe impact of the historic flooding in August 2016.

“While the district was closed for 16 consecutive days following the natural disaster, the severe impact lingered for the days, weeks and months to follow,” Drake wrote in a five-page letter to the 11 members of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Drake wants BESE to take up the waiver request when it meets Oct. 17 and 18.

If the state school board agrees, neither the East Baton Rouge Parish school system or any of its schools will receive “performance scores, growth labels, or letter grades” for the 2016-17 school year, but only for that year.

The state is preparing these scores, labels and grades and plans to release them in November. East Baton Rouge Parish currently has a C letter grade but 29 of its schools are rated D or F. Schools that earn F grades for four years in a row are in danger of state takeover.

For elementary and middle schools, performance scores are based almost solely on the state’s LEAP standardized test, which is given each spring in the third through the eighth grades. High school results derive equally from four factors: scores on ACT college placement tests, state-developed End-Of-Course exams, four-year graduation rates and a graduation index where schools get the most points for students who take advanced coursework.

While several central Louisiana school districts suffered significant flood damage in August 2016, East Baton Rouge Parish schools are the first to request a school accountability waiver, said Sydni Dunn, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education.

When LEAP scores were released in July, public schools in the city of Baker, East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes all had notable declines. But Ascension Parish, where there was flooding as well, showed academic growth. Central schools largely held steady.

John White, school superintendent for Louisiana, said at the time that the academic impact of the flood was minimal for school districts, but he was still determining whether individual flood-affected schools might have enough of an impact to merit special consideration.

Drake said he developed his waiver request with the help of state officials and is hopeful BESE will say yes.

Last October, BESE granted a series of waivers for other reasons but none connected to testing. Despite some talk in the days after the flood, no one requested such a waiver. Until now.

Last November, Drake said he met with state officials to see if they would agree to let East Baton Rouge Parish take standardized tests via pencil and paper rather than online, but was told that was not “a viable option,” so he dropped the idea.

Prior to the start of the school year, Drake had spent millions of dollars to buy more than 12,000 Chromebooks so that students in the fifth to eighth grades, the grades where tests were going to be given exclusively online, could better prepare.

The August flooding destroyed hundreds of those new laptops.

The flooding was bad enough that 10 Baton Rouge schools had to relocate, in some cases to older buildings with little to no internet connectivity. More schools had to relocate to make way for the students and teachers from the flood-damaged schools.

Drake said it all had an effect.

“Over the past weeks, we have analyzed and discussed assessment results to best support our district,” Drake wrote in his letter. “In doing so, the severe impact of the natural disaster became more and more evident, especially among the district’s large economically disadvantaged subgroup.”

BESE rules say that schools that are out for 18 or more consecutive days can earn the label of “severe impact,” qualifying them for a one-year school accountability waiver. East Baton Rouge closed its doors Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, the day the flooding began, and didn’t reopen them until Tuesday, Sept. 6.

Sixteen school days elapsed during that time, two short of the 18 the state requires for a waiver.

“My decision to reopen our school district on the 17th day was based on human need, not accountability policy,” Drake said.

Drake said he reopened schools earlier than he would have liked to in order to give students a “sense of normalcy and structure” and provide those still traumatized with the help they needed. And, he also wanted to feed hungry children the two free meals a day the school system provides, a critical factor in a district where 84 percent of the children are considered “economically disadvantaged.” And finally, he said, to allow parents to “return to work without worry for child care.”

Drake urged BESE to look beyond the 18-day requirement and recognize the “severe impact” that the flood had on the school system and its more than 40,000 students.

“It is obvious that the August 2016 flood severely impacted our student’s ability to perform at the levels they were accustomed to on this year’s test,” he said.

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