Starting in late January and continuing through February, a new initiative called Beyond Bricks EBR is attempting to gather residents of the parish for a series of sessions, 14 planned so far, to ask what they would like to see happen in public education.
“We’ve had many solutions proposed. Many outside groups have come in,” organizer Anna Fogle said. “No one has really taken the time in quite some time to re-engage the community in the solutions.”
Fogle, a mother of two children in public school and board chair of the Baton Rouge Association for Gifted and Talented Students, said the catalyst for Beyond Bricks was the legislative session last spring.
Her organization along with the Children’s Coalition of Greater Baton Rouge and the parent group One Community One School District were raising concerns about an ultimately unsuccessful proposal, developed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, to shift power from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and superintendent to school principals.
“Some of our colleagues who brought forth the legislation said to us, ‘If you don’t like what we’re pushing for, what solutions do you have?’ ” Fogle said. “And to that, this is our answer.”
It’s an answer that’s still developing. She said the solutions will emerge from the discussions.
“The biggest question I get is, ‘What are the results? What are you trying to do with this?’ And I can’t give you that,” Fogle said. “We want it to come from the community. We don’t want to project the end to this means.”
“One of the reasons this hasn’t been done before is because it’s scary and messy,” she said. “You get a whole lot of people together and ask what should be done about public education, you’re gonna have a lot of different perspectives in there.”
The initiative is drawing on similar ones of the past. She cited town hall meetings in Baton Rouge in the 1990s held under the auspices of the Kettering Foundation, the Children’s Coalition’s 2006 Community Plan for Children and BREC’s Imagine Your Parks planning process during the 2000s.
One less-promising foray, focused squarely on improving public education, was the 2008 “Yes We Can!” effort by the nonprofit Academic Distinction Fund. After 101 meetings that attracted 2,600 participants, ADF that August presented a six-page “Community Agreement” to the parish School Board. Little was heard about it again. ADF subsequently reorganized to focus on early childhood issues.
Fogle said Beyond Bricks EBR is not relying on the School Board or superintendent to pursue the issues the community highlights.
“We will keep ownership,” she said. “It’s not a report that we’ll just hand over the School Board and away here you go. We’ll create partnerships.”
Beyond Bricks is planning a launch on Jan. 20, followed soon after by the sessions, which are scheduled to end by Mardi Gras. The schedule is still being finalized, but they will be held across the parish at schools, churches, libraries and BREC facilities.
The three organizations that began this initiative have brought in several others into the fold, and more are considering joining. Key supporters include the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge and the East Baton Rouge Parish Ministers Conference. Fogle said the churches are spreading the message widely, but Beyond Bricks also has a website and Facebook page.
Beyond Bricks EBR also has enlisted the support of both Mayor-President Kip Holden and Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who has made school facilities available and allowed the organizers to receive technical support from school staff.
“We have the teacher’s associations. We have staff. We have members of the clergy,” Taylor told the School Board on Dec. 18. “This is a real broad-based coalition.”
To make these sessions work, Beyond Bricks EBR is signing up volunteers to serve as facilitators and has training sessions scheduled for Jan. 10 and Jan. 12. Maxine Crump, founder of Dialogue on Race Louisiana, is training the facilitators.
Fogle said the facilitators will work to make sure that participants are heard and that individual voices don’t dominate others.
For instance, School Board members can listen in, but they are being directed not to speak and to remain in the background.
“We have taken great pains to make sure that this is not an agenda-driven process,” Fogle said.
Scribes at each table will take down what’s said and then, starting in late February, the results will be compiled and analyzed.
Fogle said she’s not sure what kind of public reporting will occur then but said she envisions a public gathering in the spring where the results will be presented and the question will be debated about what to do next.
Fogle said Beyond Bricks is seeking as broad a participation as possible, including from those connected with private schools or no schools at all.
“It doesn’t work unless more of us are participating and we, all of us, have unique experience to bring, so we all need to be heard,” she said.
“People have been silent for too long.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was modified on Jan. 2, 2015, to correct the job title of Anna Fogle. She the board chair of the Baton Rouge Association for Gifted and Talented Students, not its executive director. The Advocate regrets the error.