Four years ago, Southern University Lab School was in trouble, deep in the red and losing students. But a shift to online education has restored the school’s financial health and prospects, perhaps even helping attract local students to the physical campus next to the historically black university in Baton Rouge.
Southern Lab’s Virtual School, barely a year old, teaches more than 600 students around the state — three times its initial enrollment target. Almost 400 more students are on a waiting list.
Enrollment at its traditional school, founded in 1922, has grown as well. At its nadir in fall 2010, 266 students enrolled in grades kindergarten to 12. Now, it has almost 500 students.
School director Ronnie Harrison said the “sky is the limit” on how big the online school could grow, provided he has sufficient staff. He plans to hire a program director to handle the growth. K12 Inc., the for-profit online giant managing the new virtual school, also is adding a new staff member to help Harrison oversee school operations.
This school year is expected to see a surplus of between $500,000 to $1 million, some of which Harrison plans to use to improve the old Southern Lab facilities.
“We have a school that is still in dire need of repairs,” he said.
Teachers, too, will get pay raises for the first time since 2006.
The virtual school is drawing students from 155 cities and towns across Louisiana.
Audrey Radford, a stay-at-home mother in Monroe, enrolled two of her children in the school: a 14-year-old daughter in ninth grade and a 9-year-old son in third grade.
Radford said her search for alternatives was sparked after her daughter, Dacarra, attended a play date that turned tragic, ending with a curtain rod puncturing her daughter’s eye. When Dacarra returned to school with an eye patch, she endured the taunts of her classmates. “She would get bullied,” her mother recalled. “She would go in the bathroom at school and cry.”
Radford has home-schooled her children in the past, so online education didn’t spook her. Her daughter, however, didn’t warm up to Southern’s virtual school until school staff paid a personal visit.
“When she got to meet Dr. Harrison and the other staff, she was excited,” Radford said. “They just embraced her.”
They encouraged the teenage girl’s dreams of becoming a model and a fashion designer, the mother recalled, and Dacarra’s attitude immediately changed.
“Before that, she wouldn’t even look in the mirror,” Radford said.
While Harrison was initially attracted to the idea of the virtual school as a way to shore up his traditional school’s finances, Harrison ended up a convert to the concept of online education. “There are so many kids being bullied and the school systems are not doing enough about it,” Harrison said.
Harrison took over at Southern Lab in January 2011, not realizing the depth of the school’s financial straits.
On his first day, he learned that the cafeteria was $60,000 in debt. But he managed to shuffle money around to avoid students having to bring their own lunch for the entire second semester.
At the worst financial time for the lab school, Southern University was propping it up to the tune of about $1.2 million a year, Harrison said.
University lab schools were formed to give colleges of education a place to train student teachers and experiment with different instructional techniques.
Like other lab schools, Southern’s receives state per-pupil funding through the Minimum Foundation Program but levies no local taxes, so it can charge tuition. Enrollment in Southern Lab’s new virtual school, by contrast, is free to families but supported by state funding.
In 2012, the Legislature agreed to allow Southern Lab’s tuition to increase from $2,000 to $2,500 a year. The school also increased fees for lunch and athletic fees, began charging for attendance at football games and is readying to privatize the cafeteria.
To improve the appeal of the traditional school, Southern Lab forged closer ties with the university on a variety of fronts.
The crossover between the two institutions was on display Thursday. Third- and fourth-graders walked down the street to the law school to engage in a mock trial organized by law students and lawyers in Baton Rouge. It’s an initiative known as the Junior Partner Academy.
The exercise started off with Southern Lab children forming their own law firms, six of them in all.
“The name of our firm is The Mystery Crew,” one child announced. “Our focus is to solve crimes, catch the bad guys and save the world.”
Four faces then flashed on the screen, all suspects in the mysterious theft of Southern University’s mascot.
“Our homecoming is tomorrow,” said Miah Hill, a second-year law student. “We need your help to find our Jaguar.”
The lab school and the university are also connected via a dual-enrollment program; it allows lab students to earn college credits starting as early as 10th grade. Students in the online school also can dually enroll, but they need to live in the metro area to attend Southern in person. Eighty of the 610 current students in the virtual school are from Baton Rouge and more live in the metro area.
In addition, seniors in the virtual school can walk at graduation ceremonies with students from the traditional school.
“Ultimately, we would love for both of our groups of students to consider attending Southern University upon graduating from Southern Lab,” Harrison said.
Southern Lab’s virtual school is K12’s second online public school in Louisiana.
The Herndon, Virginia-based company years ago partnered with Baton Rouge charter school C.S.A.L. to create Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, which now has more than 1,800 students statewide.
There is a third online public school in Louisiana: Rival Connections Academy operates a virtual charter school called Louisiana Connections Academy, which is educating more than 1,600 students.
Rose Harper, a Baton Rouge-based account manager with K12, said the curriculum is very similar at both of its online public schools in Louisiana. They both feature live teachers certified to teach in Louisiana who interact online with students. They also require that a parent serve as a “learning coach” for the children throughout the day.
Harper credited some of the fast enrollment growth at Southern’s virtual school to Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy having reached its enrollment cap. Southern, however, has a special attraction as a physical place that people know, she said.
“There were actually families, if given a choice, they said, ‘We want to go through Southern,’ ” she said.