Facing down a parade of students, community and business leaders, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday voted to close a career-focused charter school in north Baton Rouge, meaning more than 200 students will have to transfer somewhere else next year.
Career Academy, which almost closed a year ago, sought one more year in order to complete its five-year contract, but couldn’t cheat fate yet again.
The vote to close the school was 7-2, with board members Connie Bernard and Vereta Lee voting to keep it open. The motion directs the school system to place its students in career and technical programs scattered throughout the school system and track where they end up.
School supporters who packed the School Board meeting room hugged and cried after the vote.
“I don’t even know. I can’t even tell you how hard this is,” said Nancy Roberts, executive director of the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, which founded the school in 2011.
Several students described Career Academy as a family with small class sizes and adults who care about them. Without the school, they might drop out of school altogether.
“If you close the school, you putting me out there on the streets,” said Kentrell Robinson, a junior at the school studying auto mechanics. “You don’t want me to succeed.”
“Students like me, who don’t have parents, who don’t have a support system, where will we go?” asked Darneekia Burton, a junior. “Where will we get that one-on-one attention?”
The Career Academy’s future was placed in renewed jeopardy in October when its school performance score was released. The school earned a low F, lower than the year before. Its school performance score, 13.4, is one of the lowest in Baton Rouge. Eighty-five percent of the students who took end-of-course tests last year were below grade level.
The school, however, offers extensive career-training options not available in one place anywhere else in Baton Rouge. These training programs include nursing, welding, automotive, hospitality and manufacturing.
“You can agree that our (school performance score) is pretty pathetic, but it’s not an accurate reflection of our school,” Career Academy Principal Mandy LaCerte said.
For instance, LaCerte noted that the school has students who have made substantial progress on the ACT test, but the state gives credit only if students earn an 18 or above.
LaCerte also said the school’s score was weighed down by the low initial graduation rate that preceded her arrival at the school.
“Of the students I’ve personally tracked, 53 out of 54 have not dropped out,” she said.
Stephen Toups, a senior vice president with Turner Industries, said, “We can take a kid out of that school, if they stay off drugs, with just a modicum of learning, and they could make $50,000.”
Four years later, with more training, those students could make up to $120,000 a year, he added.
Gerald Adams, who has a son at the high school, praised the attention students get there.
“They’re not just looking at the grade averages,” Adams said. “Of course they want them to succeed, but they are looking into the hearts of these children.”
Superintendent Bernard Taylor recommended revoking the school’s charter.
“This is one of the most painful and difficult recommendations I’ve had to make,” he said.
Taylor clearly could not get past the school’s low F grade, even though, he admitted, he’s not a fan of the state’s accountability system and feels the school letter grades often miss the mark.
In January, Taylor agreed to extend the life of three other charter schools. Since then, he and his staff have met with Career Academy officials. Those negotiations ran aground when Career Academy said it couldn’t afford Taylor’s demand that the school not enroll a freshman class next year. That move, however, would save the school system money.
“Give us another year,” said Jacob Kantrow, chairman of the school’s board of directors. “Don’t handicap this school with an arbitrary requirement.”
Afterward, LRCE’s Roberts said the school has been costly and has only just started to pay for itself and relies on higher enrollment to pay for its future.
“For us not to accept any new students would be a death sentence,” she said.