The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Wednesday approved a charter school group from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and a New Orleans-based group to open charter schools in the parish, while rejecting eight other groups.
The IDEA charter schools are the first new charter schools the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has authorized since 2013, and it marks a dramatic expansion of charter schools in the capital city. It will have Type 1 charters, meaning the schools will draw students only from within the boundaries of the parish school system.
New Orleans-based Inspire NOLA plans to open its schools in 2017 while IDEA plans to open theirs in 2018.
The vote for IDEA was 6-3 with board members Dawn Collins, Vereta Lee and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith voting no.
The vote for Inspire NOLA was 6-0, with Collins, Lee and Nelson-Smith abstaining.
IDEA and Inspire NOLA aim to open four schools each. They plan to enroll 1,400 students in their first years, but by 2021, they plan to enroll nearly 10,000 students between them. At an estimated $11,200 per student, the school system eventually will direct about $111 million in per-pupil funding. Representatives of the school groups, however, say they are open to discussion about the size and the growth timetables of their planned schools.
Both were recruited and have the financial backing of the prominent nonprofit New Schools for Baton Rouge, which has announced it is raising money to build schools for IDEA.
“Everything we do is to get low-income kids to and through college,” said Ken Campbell, executive director of IDEA’s Louisiana organization. Campbell is a former director of the state’s charter school office. IDEA runs 44 schools and educates 24,000 children and has schools that have made national best high school lists.
Board member Lee, however, was skeptical.
“There won’t be a need for a School Board if you take that many kids from us,” Lee said.
The rejected applicants have the chance to appeal their denials to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE is scheduled to rule on the appeals in October. The eight other school groups are collectively seeking to educate about 5,000 children, about half the total of Inspire NOLA and IDEA.
The parish School Board received recommendations from an outside evaluator, Katie Blunschi, who with a handful of top school system administrators interviewed the 10 applicants. Blunschi, herself a top administrator in the school system until she retired in 2014, was selected over three other individuals to serve as outside evaluator. Only Inspire NOLA and IDEA got Blunschi’s seal of approval.
Four of the schools rejected Wednesday already are operating schools in Baton Rouge, three are charter schools that all operate at the former Glen Oaks Middle school campus, and a fourth, Greater Baton Rouge Hope Academy, is a private school in Baton Rouge that focuses on students with disabilities. Greater Baton Rouge Hope currently draws students from multiple parishes and wants to be able continue doing so, something it could do if it wins an appeal to BESE.
A fifth rejected school group, Collegiate Academies from New Orleans, gained state approval to start a charter school in Baton Rouge in 2013, but has opted not to do so until now.
The other three applicants were seeking for the first time to start schools in Baton Rouge: Athlos Academies based in Idaho; Oaks of Mamre Academy, of Baton Rouge; and Pathways in Education, based in Chicago and operating a school in Shreveport. Oaks of Mamre, seeking to start its first charter school, was rejected on an 8-0 vote, with Lee abstaining.
Glen Oaks Middle was a chronically low-performing middle school in north Baton Rouge until it was taken over in 2008 and placed in the state’s Recovery School District. Baton Rouge University Prep, or UP Elementary as it’s often called, moved into Glen Oaks Middle in August 2014 starting with just a kindergarten. A year later, it was followed by two more schools: another elementary school, Baton Rouge Bridge Academy, and a middle school that plans to add a high school, Baton Rouge College Prep. All three are run by educators who spent years working in public schools in the Baton Rouge area before launching their schools with the help of the Boston-based fellowship program Building Excellent Schools.
All three schools are young and have yet to receive state test scores, but they all are reporting strong initial results, with children taking the nationally normed Measures of Academic Performance, or MAP, rising from near the bottom nationally to the top quartile in the country.
One common objection raised Wednesday is that, however successful, the schools are not offering anything new or innovative.
“Don’t get me wrong. This is a good school,” Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton said of Baton Rouge Bridge Academy. “There’s nothing going on there that we would say is not good or different for kids, but nothing different from what we’re already doing.”
There’s also lingering animosity that the three schools were ever placed at Glen Oaks at all. Domoine Rutledge, general counsel to the school district, said in his view placing elementary schools at a former middle school violated state law and said he’s seeking an attorney general’s opinion to get clarity.
The former middle school, however, is in poor shape. All three schools opted to apply in part because of ongoing facility issues as well as the fact they will collectively outgrow the place in the near future. In January, the school system agreed to a definition of “capital repairs,” outlining the kinds of major repairs the school system is obliged to pay for. Since then, though, the agreement has sat there. RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said his office has unsuccessfully tried to get the school system to lay out the process to submit repair requests, saying his staff hasn’t heard anything since mid-March.