Texas Longhorn defensive line coach Brick Haley paid a recruiting visit Wednesday to a small north Baton Rouge high school, which didn’t have a football team three years ago and didn’t even exist before 2009.
It was a sign of how far Madison Preparatory Academy has come in a short time. While many basketball coaches have stopped by to check out the Chargers, who are two-time state champs on the court, now the football team, in the wake of an 11-1-1 season, is starting to get those visits as well.
Haley, who left LSU a year ago for Austin, had only good things to say Wednesday about the high school.
“You’ve got a really nice school,” Haley told school founder Dujan Johnson.
“It’s coming,” Johnson replied. “You should have seen where we came from.”
What started as a small, offbeat middle school teetering on closure has blossomed into a homegrown network of three charter schools covering every grade and educating 2,600 children across the state.
The two oldest schools in the network are CSAL, Community School for Apprenticeship Learning, founded in 1997, and Madison Prep, which followed 12 years later. CSAL, a middle school, now feeds into Madison Prep, the high school.
Both at first were failing schools, but they have steadily improved. They now have earned B letter grades from the state, making them among the highest-performing charter schools in the Baton Rouge area.
The state recently nominated Madison Prep along with five other schools to be named as National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, the nation’s highest school honor. They will find out in the fall whether they won.
Madison Prep’s rise is notable coming as it does when other high schools in north Baton Rouge are closing or losing students.
CSAL operates in a 54-year-old former elementary school building at 1555 Madison Ave., located just north of the state Capitol that it’s been leasing from the start from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Madison Prep is on property purchased next door and is a mix of new construction and temporary buildings. The new construction includes the basketball gym, which opened in 2011 and is considered “the heart of the school,” Johnson said. There’s also a $3 million building under construction behind the gym that will house classrooms and the school’s main offices.
CSAL and Madison Prep were joined in 2011 by the Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, which educates students from across Louisiana in grades kindergarten through 12th. Instruction occurs almost exclusively online via a prepackaged curriculum supplied by the suburban Washington, D.C.-based for-profit giant, K12.
Johnson oversees all three schools as executive director of CSAL Inc.
Johnson, unlike many other charter school leaders in the Baton Rouge area, has long maintained close ties with the public school district. Adam Smith, an associate superintendent in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, is chairman of CSAL’s board, and Herman Brister Jr., principal of McKinley High School, is a board member.
CSAL Inc.’s administrative offices are in the old Hancock Bank tower at 4962 Florida Blvd., near Baton Rouge Community College, which the organization purchased a couple of years ago.
That building also houses the online school and its ground floor is being turned into a blended learning center where online students can come in for face-to-face instruction. A blended learning center opened in a church in Lafayette in August, and the school plans to open up more centers across the state.
The online school has a much different profile than the brick-and-mortar CSAL and Madison Prep. More than 70 percent of its students are white and they live all over the state, often in rural areas. Enrollment tops 1,900, though many students stay for only a semester or two.
CSAL and Madison Prep schools enroll about 700 students between them, almost all black students and residents of Baton Rouge, and once they arrive, they tend to stay.
Johnson’s heart clearly remains at CSAL and Madison Prep.
“I start my morning here every day and most days I end them here as well,” he said.
Johnson has been showing up at the campus since he was hired in 1997 by Ted DeMuro to be a teacher at DeMuro’s new charter school. Back then, charter schools — public schools run by private organizations — were new to Louisiana, and CSAL is one of the original three that opened in Baton Rouge.
DeMuro, a combative, maverick educator who was forced out of his own school in 2004, envisioned CSAL as a kind of new-age trade school where students learned their academic classes, like mathematics, by doing. The project-based approach, however, fell short with students who were behind in school and needed a stronger academic foundation, Johnson discovered. That lack of foundation was clear in the school’s low test scores, which became a problem as Louisiana ratcheted up its school accountability program, threatening the school’s charter.
After DeMuro’s exit, Johnson shifted to a more traditional approach and test scores began to rise. Johnson also credited his managerial approach for that rise.
“People keep asking me the key to our success,” Johnson said. “I hire good people, and I get out of their way.”
LaMont Cole is an example. In 2011, Cole took over as chief academic officer for CSAL Inc., and a year later, he became the middle school principal as well. In addition to being a former president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge branch and a recently appointed Metro Council member, Cole is a veteran middle school principal, first at Capitol Middle, then at Park Forest Middle. He quickly tested Johnson’s willingness to “get out of the way.”
Johnson admitted initial reluctance.
“It was nothing to do with LaMont,” he said. “It was more force of habit.”
Johnson had been running CSAL since at least 2001 when he was promoted by DeMuro and was used to calling the shots. But after some reflection, he agreed to let Cole do his thing and judge him by the results. He said he’s never looked back.
Cole said he spent his first year observing how CSAL operated, but then replaced several people he thought weren’t measuring up. He’s especially proud of one of his new hires, social studies teacher Y’vonne Santos. Social studies is a standout area for the middle school. Last year, every one of Santos’ seventh-grade students scored on grade level or better in that subject. He has since named her as the school’s director of learning.
Since Cole’s arrival, the middle and high schools have shifted how they test students internally. Before he arrived, the schools were using tests provided by the parish school system that are given every four to six weeks. Cole shifted to weekly testing, but the tests are typically shorter and the teachers write them, and, most importantly, make immediate use of them, which he said was too often not happening before.
“We want to see if the children are learning what they’ve been taught in the last four or five days,” he said.
Cole also decided to virtually eliminate suspensions. CSAL was using traditional school discipline before. Johnson recalled at one point expelling 18 eighth-graders who had “taken over the school.”
Cole had suspended kids in previous jobs, too. But as he looked at ways of improving discipline, he decided to have mandatory meetings with every parent before school started each year, something he hadn’t done before. He said it’s worked well. He knows parents and students much better, and can more easily enlist parents’ help in intervening when necessary.
“The majority of the problem in most schools is that the school and the parents aren’t on the same page about how to educate their child,” he said.
CSAL and Madison Prep don’t advertise, but wins on the basketball court and the football field have provided ample publicity. Johnson said emphasizing athletics was a conscious strategy, but it’s worked far better than he thought it would.
“I wanted a respectable athletic program,” Johnson said. “I didn’t envision a powerhouse.”
Alisa Welsh, Madison Prep’s principal since it opened, said the school’s rising popularity means she routinely gets recognized on the street. Families interested in attending will try to hand her or her family members applications in person, in hopes of bypassing the enrollment process.
“I’ve had to do some (professional development) with my family,” she said, laughing.
The athletics-first approach to the school was not Welsh’s first choice, but she’s come to see its usefulness and now counts many athletes among her better students.
“What I wanted was to have an academic empire,” she said.
Johnson thought athletics and academics could go hand in hand. His model was his alma mater, Glen Oaks High School and its longtime basketball coach, Harvey Adger, who is known for emphasizing that his players keep good grades if they want to play. In fact, when it came time to hire his own basketball coach and athletic director, Johnson hired away Adger’s longtime assistant coach, Jeff Jones.
As Madison Prep and CSAL have become better known, the caliber of students enrolling has grown. Johnson recalls that when he was a teacher, his classes were full of kids much older and bigger than their peers. The incoming sixth-graders at CSAL now arrive on grade level.
“I look at these kids now and they’re so small!” Johnson marveled.