Less standardized testing, a smarter approach to student misbehavior, ending high turnover of school administrators, and making schools once again the centers of their communities are key ways to improve public education in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Those were common refrains heard during a series of community “listening sessions” held this spring with residents throughout the parish.
Beyond Bricks EBR, a grassroots effort to develop a community agenda for public education, released an eight-page report Thursday summing up the comments of roughly 550 participants who attended 16 listening sessions between January and March.
Thirteen sessions were open to the general public. Additional sessions were held with teachers, students and top administrators.
The group has scheduled four more meetings, between May 27 and June 7 at four public libraries, to “determine top priorities and solutions the community can come together to implement and recharge our public schools,” the report says.
The report was released to a gathering at a conference center at the 16th floor of Albemarle Corp., which helped support the effort.
“This community wants a strong public school system that is easy to navigate with a clear path from prekindergarten through graduation,” lead organizer Anna Fogle said.
Fogle acknowledged that the participants, unsurprisingly, were passionate supporters public schools. She said she wants to find ways to hear the voices of those who favor private and parochial schools.
Here are some of the findings:
— Too much testing: “There is a strong perception and concern among both the community participants and the students that standardized testing drives teaching.”
— Need for more student discipline, including more focus on mental health, mentoring, increasing parental support and better follow-through once problems are identified. Also, many participants believe school policies “limit what teachers and principals can do to be effective in this area.”
— Good, strong schools should be the norm, instead of some schools receiving more resources and being publicly rated significantly higher than others. “The vision of the community is to have all schools be equitable and strong pillars of their geographic area.”
— State education policy and school takeovers are seen as a “barrier to student success.”
— The School Board and superintendent need to improve their relations; school leaders and front-line employees need more support from higher-level administration; and officials need to find ways to arrest employee turnover.
— Tension continues between a desire for racial diversity and blaming school desegregation efforts for many current education problems.
Roy Heidelberg, an assistant professor of public administration at LSU, put together the report. He said hand-written notes from the listening sessions were laboriously transcribed, analyzed for common words and themes, and distilled. He said he then sent his report back to those who took the notes for a final quality check.
After Fogle and Heidelberg spoke, a few audience members questioned the results.
Nancy Roberts, executive director of the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, wondered why there wasn’t more discussion of the tension between school choice and neighborhood schools.
“‘School choice’ was not used once,” Heidelberg said, referring to the notes he examined.
Outgoing East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor, an active supporter of the initiative, said he suspects many parents don’t think of education the same way school choice advocates do.
“You know the choice people want? A good experience for their child. Period,” Taylor said.
Ed Doyle, an operations director with All Star Automotive, questioned why the report didn’t go into the big differences between the schools located north and south of Florida Boulevard and the much different needs of the students in those schools. He also wondered about the lack of comment over how public schools are almost all black, but Baton Rouge is racially integrated.
“When the face of our schools doesn’t match the face of our community, we need to talk about that,” Doyle said.
Fogle said that while participants had much in common, there were differences in what people considered important depending on where they lived.
“The conversation at Cadillac Street Park may have a different flavor than the one at the Bluebonnet Library,” she said.
Here is the schedule for the four follow-up meetings of Beyond Bricks EBR:
— May 27, 6 p.m., at the Carver Library, 720 Terrace St., Baton Rouge.
— May 30, 4 p.m., at the Main Library, 7711 Goodwood Blvd., Baton Rouge,
— June 4, 6:30 at the Bluebonnet Library, 9200 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge.
— June 7, 2:30 at the Jones Creek Library, 6222 Jones Creek Road, Baton Rouge.