In parks, churches, schools and community centers all over East Baton Rouge Parish, small groups of residents have gathered over the past three weeks to offer their thoughts on the current state of local public education and what to do about it.
“Desegregation and what happened in the courts … let’s get over it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” said Laurel Chenier, a graduate of Baton Rouge High and a mother of children in public school.
“You need to change the mindset of this community, that we are one,” said Betty Powers, also a mother of public school children.
Such comments are emerging from the public discussions, organized as part of a community listening initiative called Beyond Bricks EBR.
It is an attempt to develop a community agenda for Baton Rouge education drawn directly from what residents say. The organizers are a mix of parent groups, school leaders and religious ministers.
The first listening session was held Jan. 28 at BREC’s Cadillac Street Park in the Glen Oaks area. The 13th and final session is planned for 3 p.m. Sunday at the Pride-Chaneyville Branch library, 13600 Pride-Port Hudson Road, Pride.
Beyond Bricks also is planning focus groups in the next few days with students, teachers, principals as well as top administrators in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Those who missed sessions can chime in online on the group’s homepage.
Organizers estimate that almost 500 people have gathered so far, an average of about 40 people per session.
Anna Fogle, an organizer but also a mother of two children in public schools and board chairwoman of the Baton Rouge Association for Gifted and Talented Students, said she worried that people with axes to grind would dominate some discussions, but that’s not what she’s seen.
“My overall feeling from people is an overwhelming gratitude for the ability to talk and have someone listen to their concerns about public education,” she said. “That’s been extremely gratifying.”
At each session, the audience is prepped for the discussion to come with a short factual presentation of where public schools stand. Then participants break into small groups, roughly eight to a table. Each table has a facilitator to manage the discussion and a scribe to take notes.
The participants dominate, though, and most are not shy in saying their piece. That was clear at one lively table that gathered on the night of Feb. 10 in the library at Tara High School. It was one of four sessions held that day.
“The best thing (my children) learned from public schools is how to get along with everyone,” said Mike Button, pastor of nearby St. Paul Lutheran Church and the father of children who went to public schools in Texas.
That familiarity with diversity came in handy come time to go to college, he said.
“It wasn’t just that they were educationally ready; they were socially ready,” Button said.
Monique Marino said she sees no reason why “all schools can’t be magnet schools,” explaining that the education at all schools could be of that caliber. She said she would prefer more community schools, but said modern living makes it hard to have community schools similar to those of the past.
“We are all living within the four walls of our houses and not so community-oriented,” Marino said.
Fogle said she’s been surprised at some of the “misinformation” that has emerged in some discussions, and believes the sessions have been good at giving people better information to consider.
“For instance, the connection between poverty and testing is not so well-known,” Fogle said. “That surprised me.”
The opening presentation tracks this issue in a chart showing school districts, their poverty level and the rough correlation to their district performance scores.
Organizers have begun sorting the notes collected from each table and will hand them later this week to analysts at LSU and Southern University. From that analysis, Beyond Bricks EBR will commission a short technical paper “that will inform whatever solution we bring to the table,” Fogle said, though the group has yet to settle on who will write the paper.
“We’re trying to do the analysis at arm’s length as possible,” she said.
Once the analysis is complete, organizers are debating what to do next. While a public event is likely, to update the general public, Fogle said organizers also are considering briefing local groups and government entities that can act on the issues raised in the listening sessions.
Chenier came to her listening session at Tara High with a special request.
“My little boy asked me to say that we need better playgrounds,” she said.