Since Istrouma High School closed 11 months ago, the corner of Winbourne Avenue and North 38th Street hasn’t seen much activity. Ground-floor windows and doors are covered by metal shutters, and the parking lot is empty most days.
On Monday afternoon, though, a handful of alumni and other supporters arrived with signs and petitions, and they plan to keep coming back until April 24. They walked up and down Winbourne urging drivers to demand that the state Department of Education return control of the 68-year-old building to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Signatures starting coming quickly.
“We need to get Istrouma High back! It’s a sad situation in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Glenn Augillard, a 1979 graduate of the high school, yelled through his rolled-down car window before pulling over.
Augillard quickly signed the petition handed to him by Byron Sharper, former Metro Council member and president of the Istrouma High School Alumni Association, and then kept talking.
He remembers Istrouma as a school with strong athletics and academics. He doesn’t understand why the state would shut down such a school, and he said his neighbors don’t either.
“You have made this a very bitter community,” Augillard said.
Istrouma High was taken over by the state in 2012 after years of failing to meet state minimum academic standards. It was placed in the state-run Recovery School District, or RSD, which ran the school for two more years. Enrollment quickly dropped to half of what it had been before. RSD ended up closing the high school in May when the school year ended.
There was a brief flurry of protests when the closure was announced in fall 2013.
The new petition drive is being led by the alumni association, along with the East Baton Rouge Parish chapter of the NAACP, and the East Baton Rouge Parish Federation of Teachers, a teacher’s union.
Organizers started gathering petitions in the neighborhood surrounding Istrouma on Thursday. They say they collected more than 200 signatures. They plan to continue seeking signatures on the petitions in front of the school during the workweek, this week and next, from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Federation of Teachers, said the closure of Istrouma runs counter to anti-crime efforts such as BRAVE, which focuses on the 70805 ZIP code, as well as 70802.
“There’s no high schools in 70805 for (students) to go to,” he said.
Indeed, high schools have been slowly disappearing from north Baton Rouge. Redemptorist High, a private school, and Career Academy, a charter school, are closing in May. Scotlandville High, with more than 1,400 students, is the only large high school in north Baton Rouge. Glen Oaks High, the next largest, has about 500 students.
The new round of protests coincides with the start of the legislative session. Reps. Pat Smith and Ted James, both Democrats from Baton Rouge, have filed House Bill 537, which seeks to force the return of Istrouma and other vacant RSD-controlled schools to their school districts. The bill awaits action in the House Education Committee.
RSD’s plan is to find a “high quality operator” to locate at Istrouma, but that won’t happen until fall 2016 at theearliest. New Orleans-based Collegiate Academies has been a leading contender, but Patrick Dobard, RSD’s superintendent, said he will work with alumni, school system leaders and community residents before making a decision, likely in October, on the next tenant for Istrouma.
“We don’t want an underutilized building” he said. “The more we can work together to make a solution for north Baton Rouge that’s the best possible path.”
Lynda Turner lives a block from Istrouma. She said she was stunned when she heard the high school was closing.
“I really thought it was a joke,” she recalled.
She said students who used to walk to school now get up at 5:30 a.m. to attend schools across town, or they drop out.
“I see them falling behind,” she said.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.