A popular foreign language immersion school in downtown Baton Rouge will expand this fall to occupy nearby Polk Elementary, where older students will attend.
After a lengthy debate Thursday, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted 8-0 in favor of the idea. Board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith was absent.
Grades kindergarten to second will remain at 802 Mayflower St. Upper grades, second to fifth, will move into Polk Elementary, 408 E. Polk St. Prekindergarten classes will move to Polk as well.
The changes take effect in August with the start of the 2016-17 school year.
That’s none too soon for supporters of the school, known as BR FLAIM, short for Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion school. They have long wanted to expand the school but have been hampered by the small Mayflower campus.
The change accelerates others made in early 2014.
At that time, the school system spent millions to renovate Polk. Officials added foreign language programs in Spanish and Mandarin. The program was called BR FLAIM II.
Polk Elementary, which has been shrinking in enrollment for years, was allowed to continue its operations but could not accept new students. New students are enrolling instead at nearby Buchanan and University Terrace elementary schools. Meanwhile, the old Polk is being phased out. By 2020, all Polk students will be gone.
BR FLAIM II, however, has proven a tough sell, receiving about half as many applicants as the original school.
Now BR FLAIM and BR FLAIM II are being combined into one school known as BR FLAIM but one that will operate at both campuses. Students at both locations will be immersed for at least 60 percent of their day in Spanish, Mandarin or French. Currently, only Spanish is offered at both locations.
Combined foreign language enrollment would grow over time from about 320 students to about 600 students.
Several supporters of Polk sought Thursday to reverse the 2014 decision that is slowly killing their school and restore Polk as an elementary school serving all elementary grades. They argued that Polk is an overlooked jewel of a school and should be preserved.
Daphne Batiste, who has a grandson in third grade at Polk, showed a petition signed by 30 parents who send their children to Polk and oppose eventually closing the school.
“Don’t take our school away,” Batiste said.
Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton said that for schools to be worth the expense they need to have about 250 students, but Polk has about 150 students, which includes kids who live outside Polk’s attendance zone. Clayton said even if the school’s traditional zone were restored, just 124 students would go there.
Monicke Baker, who works in the office at Polk Elementary, disputed those numbers.
“It would be more than 124,” she said. “I have to turn parents away each day.”
Clayton, however, said BR FLAIM will eventually need a bigger home and there is an opportunity to develop a school down the road that would educate children from the Polk community and be financially feasible.
BR FLAIM supporters’ long-standing goal has been to persuade the School Board to build a new campus, allowing them to escape their beloved campus on Mayflower Street, which is nevertheless in poor condition.
Clayton said school system leaders are considering building a new BR FLAIM school as they figure out which construction projects to bring to voters in 2018, when they seek renewal of a 1 cent sales tax that funds most public school construction in Baton Rouge. She said it would hold as many as 900 students, bigger than the current BR FLAIM and Polk campuses.
Also on the table, she said, is forming a high school featuring the International Baccalaureate program, an internationally focused competitor of Advanced Placement. IB is available in Baton Rouge at Baton Rouge International and LSU Lab schools. Students from BR FLAIM would feed into the proposed high school as well as students from Mayfair Lab and from parish Montessori programs.
Several BR FLAIM supporters showed up Thursday to applaud the move and sing the praises of their magnet school, which has an A letter grade and is one of the highest-performing in Baton Rouge academically.
Shameka Johnson has two sons learning French at BR FLAIM and her daughter is set to start learning French herself this fall. Johnson said she’s amazed with how well they are doing.
“It’s always been a dream of mine for my children to learn a foreign language,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think it was possible.”