Residents, parents and teachers filled the auditorium at Northeast High School on Tuesday night to offer their ideas on how to improve the high school as well as Northeast Elementary School across the street.
“This is not the end of something, this is the beginning,” East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor said.
Tuesday’s forum was the fifth Taylor has held in the past month. He promised to return to Northeast after his staff has had a chance to go through the feedback they’ve collected.
The superintendent held four forums in four consecutive days in mid-November. Each forum — three were held in north Baton Rouge and one in southeast Baton Rouge — had specific proposals for the areas in question. All involved creating “attendance regions” where any child living in that region could seek to attend any school offering their grade.
The Northeast area, however, has only two schools.
“A regional concept doesn’t really apply here, so we want to see what we can do to strengthen what they do already,” Taylor said.
To that effect, Taylor divided the audience into groups — community members, faculty and staff, parents, and students — and asked them to offer improvement suggestions.
Jennifer Sampson-Norwood, a special education and literacy intervention teacher at Northeast High, said her group, which consisted of many fellow teachers, but also bus drivers and staff from the elementary school, had a rich discussion.
“We called it ‘dreaming big,’ because we had some big ideas and we will hope they will take root,” Sampson-Norwood said.
Some groups took longer to get to work.
In the “community” group, after a speaker accused the school system of leaving Northeast for last, School Board President Barbara Freiberg jumped in, pointing out that at least two other areas haven’t had similar community forums as yet, including her south Baton Rouge district.
That same group also got into a heated discussion of whether the high school should have more community programs as opposed to pushing all children onto a college track.
Orlando Ramos, associate superintendent for innovation and reform, expressed concern that too often in the past career tracking has been used to deny Latino and African-American children a chance to go to college.
“If a child chooses not to go to college, that’s fine, but let’s make sure that every child is college-ready,” Ramos said.
In the “parent” group,” the conversation grew rancorous as several parents complained that the school system sends children to Northeast from distant places, children with few ties to the community and who take long bus rides to get to school.
Taylor, who walked into the room during the discussion, said the school system is required by state and federal law to offer many of the transfer students the option to attend Northeast.
“The children have a right to go to school here,” Taylor said.
Northeast schools have changed in recent years. Much of that occurred after Central, which is south of the Northeast area, broke away in 2007 and formed its own school district, taking with it much of the attendance zones for the two Northeast schools. Baker and Zachary formed their own school districts in 2003. Northeast schools have fewer students and schools that used to be a more even racially mixed are now about 80 percent black.
Maria Sparacino said that her daughter, who is in eighth grade, has had problems.
“She comes home every day complaining about two or three fights she sees,” Sparacino said. “That’s totally unacceptable.”
Sparacino’s older daughter, Amanda St. Pierre, has opted to send her child to private school.
“I went to Northeast High,” St. Pierre said. “Northeast then is nothing like it is now.”
Sampson-Norwood said that in her eight years of teaching at Northeast the school has shifted from a more of neighborhood school drawing students from Pride and Chaneyville to one that draws students from more distant places. But this year, she has seen fewer transfer students and she said she was happy to see a diverse group of faces present at Tuesday’s forum.
“There were some parents here I’ve never seen here before,” she said.