As buses pull up each morning to 5300 Monarch Ave., Baton Rouge, children spill out and walk a short way to class in buildings 100, 300 and 800.
These buildings, though, are no longer separate wings of the same school. They are schools in their own right.
The former Glen Oaks Middle campus, which for six decades was a neighborhood school, is now home to three charter schools under one roof. The schools are overseen by the state-run Recovery School District and are part of the state’s effort to turn around public education in north Baton Rouge.
Locating a bunch of new schools all together is an increasingly common approach in cities such as New Orleans that are full of charter schools but have a shortage of space. It’s a rarity for Baton Rouge.
“It’s a short-term solution,” said Meghan Turner, UP’s founder. “I don’t think it’s a long-term solution. I do think there will be some synergy with all of us being in one place.”
The 60-year-old facility needed substantial work — the Recovery School District estimates it spent $60,000 earlier this year to bring the facility up to code — and school supporters have repainted and cleaned their buildings inside and out.
The three schools are small, ranging from 72 children at Baton Rouge Bridge to about 186 at UP. Collectively, they have less than 400 children, most in kindergarten or first grade. They all plan to grow much larger, and in a few years, one or more schools will have to move. They are aiming to have more than 1,500 students each, and their charters allow them to have as many as 1,800 students.
“They can stay together in that space for two to four years, four years with some modifications,” said Chris Meyer, CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge, which has underwritten some of the schools’ development. “We are very committed to helping them figure out a long-term solution to their space problems.”
The three schools bring the total number of charter schools in East Baton Rouge Parish to 25, up from just three a decade ago. Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via contracts, or charters.
Like many charter schools, these schools are starting small to create a successful culture. The cultures in evidence so far are ordered, with students taught explicitly how to behave, teachers working hard to engage their attention and school leaders hovering nearby to make sure things are going according to plan.
UP and Baton Rouge Bridge are elementary schools, but they will have different grade configurations, while Baton Rouge College Prep is starting with just fifth and sixth grades but will top out at 12th grade. They all emphasize, even obsess over, ensuring their students will get into college.
Each morning, Baton Rouge Bridge holds a morning motivational meeting for the kindergartners that sets an energetic tone for the day. Pennants from colleges all over the U.S. are on display over their little heads.
“We’re walking with urgency because we have places to go, brains to grow,” Chloe Wiley, founder of Baton Rouge Bridge, tells them forcefully as they follow taped lines to their homeroom.
They will need to grow a lot. The north Baton Rouge neighborhoods these new schools are drawing most of their students from are rife with poverty and a host of social ills.
UP — short for Baton Rouge University Prep — opened last year with around 90 kindergartners. Fully 84 percent of them were unable to identify 10 letters on a screening test. Nine months later, their reading was much better, according to the reading assessment UP uses: 1.4 years of growth on average in a year’s time.
The school had each student write an essay by handwriting four sentences and printed them in a kind of yearbook, which school leaders show to prospective families interested in the school.
All but a handful of last year’s kindergartners stayed and are now in UP’s first grade. They’ve been joined by several new first-graders, making that grade substantially larger than the new kindergarten class.
“Everything we put out was all about kindergarten, and we ended up adding 30 new students for first grade,” Turner said.
The leaders of the three schools developed their charter schools through the Boston-based incubator program Building Excellent Schools. The organization has spent the past 15 years developing leaders who went on to launch some of the best charter schools in their respective parts of the U.S. More than 100 schools now in operation started with fellowships with the organization.
Turner, Wiley and Baton Rouge College Prep founder Kathryn Rice all were accepted into the highly selective program — typically, fewer than 2 out of every 100 applicants are accepted.
The three women learned their craft in public school classrooms in and around Baton Rouge, including ones in north Baton Rouge. Rice and Wiley were part of the Teach For America teacher placement program. They all have held educational leadership positions, but Rice is the only one with experience at running a school — Pointe Coupee Central High School in Morganza for a year.
Their fellowships, which cost $250,000 apiece, were underwritten by New Schools for Baton Rouge. A fourth New Schools for Baton Rouge-funded fellow, Baton Rouge-native Eric Lewis, is seeking to launch a middle/high school in Baton Rouge called APEX Collegiate Academy.
Building Excellent Schools also has fellows launching schools in the New Orleans area.
“The hard thing for these fellows is it’s really like being a doctor in a residency,” Meyer said. “They have to plan for a school while most of their time is spent in other schools. It’s pretty intense.”
Rice, Turner and Wiley visited dozens of schools around the country to help hone their school ideas and prepare their charters. Turner was placed on a fast track to help get her school going quickly, while Rice and Wiley had the full two years of preparation. They’ve all freely borrowed the best ideas they saw.
“We have the advantage of having excellent models and being able to work closely with people inside of the schools, so now we are able to turn around and actually do it,” Rice said.
Linda Brown, founder and executive director of Building Excellent Schools, said the word “innovate” is overrated in education, given how many good educational techniques already are being practiced. She urges the would-be charter school leaders, without thinking twice, to replicate the best things they see.
“If something works like a charm, why would you bury it?” Brown said.
The schools Brown’s organization supports have many similarities. They focus explicitly on shepherding children to college. They strive for urgency and efficiency, and they are “highly structured,” as Brown puts it.
The fellows describe their schools as “high expectations” schools. Brown said that until recently, they would have been called “no excuses” schools, a label that has generated opposition because of the military-style disciplinary practices of some of its adherents, but it is a label Brown doesn’t shy away from.
The three new schools are strict, but they have heart. It is common when a child is having problems for another adult from the school’s support staff to swoop in and take a walk to try to talk over whatever is going on.
And the schools can be fun. At Baton Rouge Bridge last week, the reward for good behavior was to take your shoes off, an idea Wiley heard from her best friend’s 4-year-old, who attends a private school in town.
“Remember, 15 pennies and you get to let the whole class smell your stinky feet!” Wiley proclaimed.
Meyer said New Schools for Baton Rouge sees a future for Rice, Turner and Wiley beyond 5300 Monarch Ave.
He points to the New York City-based charter school management organization Democracy Prep. That organization began with a fellowship through Building Excellent Schools, and its school in Harlem is now rated one of the best middle schools in New York City. Democracy Prep now has 17 schools in three states, including a new elementary school at the former Prescott Middle in Baton Rouge, which New Schools has awarded $1 million in support.
Meyer said he has high hopes that the three schools at the former Glen Oaks will follow a similar path.
“These schools, in a decade, they could be the ones that places like Memphis and Dallas are trying to recruit,” Meyer said.