East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Warren Drake on Thursday promised a crowd of more than 200 people that he is working to end the “educational desert” that exists in much of north Baton Rouge and to reignite school pride and connection to local neighborhoods.
High on that agenda is getting Istrouma High School back from the state , which took it over in 2012 and closed it in 2014. Drake, who worked for the state Department of Education from 2012 to this spring, said he is talking to state leaders and hopes to be able to announce something in a few weeks.
The superintendent noted that much of north Baton Rouge is without a high school now and he wants to change that. He said he also plans to combat increased competition from independent charter schools by working to make district schools the first choice of parents.
“I don’t want any child to leave their neighborhood for schools that are far away,” Drake told a predominantly African-American audience that filled the pews of Star Hill Baptist Church, 1400 N. Foster Drive.
To help cement that community connection, Drake said he’s beefing up arts and athletics, making sure every school has a parent-teacher organization as well as a partnership with a local business.
Drake, who took over the state’s second-largest public school district in June, also emphasized his desire to have schools connect with students’ minds and hearts so they grow to value school.
“We want to lead from the heart and teach from the heart,” he said. “We want to give (children) a hug when they come to school each morning.”
In a similar vein, he said he is focusing on connecting with teachers as human beings to attract, retain and work with them to improve what they do.
“Teachers need to feel valued, and they want to work in safe environments, and that’s what we’re going to do in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Drake said.
He plans to post in the lobbies of schools the rates at which both teachers and students are attending school in hopes it will spur them both to come to school more regularly. Drake said he personally hates to miss work.
“My wife thinks I’m a workaholic, because I am. I love what I do,” he said. “And I want our teachers to love what they do.”
Thursday’s gathering was organized by the group “Our Schools…Our Excellence,” an offshoot of the nonprofit group MetroMorphosis; the Rev. Raymond Jetson, pastor of Star Hill and a former state lawmaker, is president of MetroMorphosis. Our Schools unveiled Thursday a new public information campaign called “It’s My Responsibility” to persuade residents of the importance of improving schools and how they can help make that happen.
Drake fielded questions from a five-member panel made up of a student, a parent and three community members. Audience members also submitted questions that Jetson then posed to the superintendent.
Godis Jackson, a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School who sat on the panel, said she liked what she heard from Drake and that he was responsive to the questioners. She had only one misgiving.
“I wish he had shared how he would get students involved in planning for the changes he’s making,” Jackson said.
LaToya Butler, a mother of a first-grader at a local elementary school who also sat on the panel, said she too was taken with the new superintendent and is excited about the direction he’s taking.
Butler said she especially liked when Drake clarified what happened when the School Board voted a week ago to lower the minimum grade-point average from 2.0 to 1.5 that students need to participate in school sports and extracurricular activities. Drake explained that the change would not affect the grades students get in individual classes, something Butler was unaware of.
“I didn’t understand it,” Butler said. “It made more sense when he said that the grading scale didn’t change.”
Drake thanked Jetson for inviting him to the forum and said he’s eager to get the word out about what’s happening in schools: “I have not turned down one organization or event to go to, because guess what? We’re all in this together.”