White Hills Elementary is so close to the Baker city limits that if you walk just a short way west along shoulderless Bentley Drive, you’ll be in Baker.
That dividing line is proving increasingly important as public schools, including two new charter schools, fight over a shrinking pool of schoolchildren in this section of East Baton Rouge Parish.
As Type 2 charter schools, they can and do enroll children from both sides of the Baker city limits. By contrast, schools run by the separate Baker and East Baton Rouge Parish school systems still have to abide by those boundaries, erected in 2003, and stay off each other’s turf.
White Hills Elementary may be the first casualty. The school lost about 60 students in the past year, though it has regained a trickle of kids in recent months. Still, it ended the year with 188 students, less than half the school’s enrollment as recently as 2008.
Outgoing East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor in late April announced plans to close the school if it doesn’t find 100 more students by the end of June. The superintendent’s office has not released an estimate of the net savings but calculated that White Hills costs about $2.3 million a year to operate. The system can potentially reap further savings, Taylor argued, by moving the EBR Readiness Academy north from its current leased space on Staring Lane to White Hills.
Questioned at a May 7 meeting about whether recruiting 100 new students in such a short span of time is a realistic goal, Taylor said he set a high goal on purpose.
“You got to light a fire under somebody to keep this from happening,” Taylor said. “These charter schools are not going away. If anything, they are proliferating.”
Taylor’s replacement, Warren Drake, however, quickly let parish School Board members know that he wants to give White Hills another chance, at least for another year.
“My immediate thoughts were, ‘I don’t want to close another school in north Baton Rouge,’” Drake said May 25.
He said he doesn’t have a number in mind for how many kids the school needs to have enrolled for it to be worth keeping open but said he would make that call a year from now.
“I understand that it costs money to operate a facility,” he said.
The School Board postponed deciding White Hills’ fate until it meets on Thursday. It will be Drake’s first meeting as head of the school system. He is spending June as acting superintendent while Taylor takes accumulated leave. Drake becomes permanent superintendent July 1.
The school system has saved small elementary schools from closure before. Polk Elementary, which has 175 students, has repeatedly been spared. The school was renovated at the cost of several million dollars, and foreign language immersion classes in Spanish and Chinese are slowly replacing the neighborhood school.
“Polk is in a better position to be used to attract students than White Hills is,” Taylor said, noting its proximity to LSU.
Board member Vereta Lee said she was invited to a parents meeting in January at White Hills to discuss the school’s future, but the school system canceled it without explanation. She told Taylor on May 7 that it’s too late in the school year, in her view, to decide to close the school.
“I’m not in favor of closing a school this close to the end of the year because these babies will not know where they will be going next year,” Lee said.
Taylor said he had a good reason for not having a public debate earlier on possibly closing the school.
“You don’t have conversation about a school closing in January because nine times out of ten, people believe it’s a fait accompli, and then they start leaving and your test scores plummet,” he said.
Veteran educator Dawn Brewster took over as White Hills’ principal in summer 2012. Since then, the school has lost more than 100 students. At the same time, it has shown overall academic growth each year and has a high D letter grade, three points shy of a C.
Taylor said he let all principals who were facing increased charter school competition know that he expected them to fight back. He blamed Brewster for not doing more to prevent students from leaving. Brewster responded that she was officially constrained from taking such steps until recently.
Now, she’s in full campaign mode. She has 150 yard signs she’s placing in neighborhoods near the school. She’s mailing flyers to homes in the White Hills attendance zone and has supporters placing them under car windshield wipers. She’s pushing to have families come to White Hills to register their children for kindergarten now, rather than wait until August when school starts.
Still, she said she’s at a competitive disadvantage with the advertising budget and goodies that charter schools offer, as well as the fact that Advantage and Impact operate in new or refurbished buildings. She recently had White Hills’ buildings pressure-washed, but she said the facility, built in 1960, still needs a lot more work.
“I’ve been trying to get them to paint it for years,” she said with frustration. “And they ask why are they all going to the charter schools.”
Brewster rattles off all the reasons that parents should patronize her school rather than head elsewhere. The school has a fully-certified teaching staff, a prekindergarten class, help for children with disabilities, and a variety of clubs ranging from Lego-creating to a show choir.
Beefing up the school’s arts offerings has been a big part of Brewster’s focus.
“The kids love this kind of stuff,” she said. “You can’t just put them behind a desk and lecture to them all day.”
The LSU Museum of Art is two years into a three-year partnership with the elementary school. Schoolchildren visit the museum monthly and the museum works with White Hills’s teachers before and after these visits.
“I’ve done a lot of work, the teachers have done a lot of work and the kids have bought into it,” said Lucy Perera, coordinator of school & community programs at the museum.
Perera said the students have come a long way in their appreciation of art.
“They really have become quite sophisticated museum-goers,” she said.
Mae Bates, who has several children attending or who have attended White Hills, said she moved one of her children to Impact Charter briefly earlier this year to try it out.
“You think the grass is greener on the other side,” Bates said, “but then you realize it’s not.”
Drake insisted the school has potential. He said he attended an end-of-the-school year arts performance on May 19 and came away impressed.
“The show choir there was just phenomenal,” he said.
Drake said the experience just shows to him that the school system needs to do a better job getting the word out about what schools already offer and work to add more.
“We just have to be more competitive with options for parents,” he said. “That’s the way we want to be with all schools.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.