Warren Drake, East Baton Rouge Parish’s new school superintendent, told an audience of local conservative leaders Tuesday that he is making changes to improve public schools enough to stem the historic outflow of students to private and public charter schools.
While there are “beacons of excellence,” Drake acknowledged the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is not the highly thought of place it was in the ’60s and ’70s when he first began teaching here.
“Competition is good. We have to get better,” Drake told the luncheon audience.
The monthly luncheon is sponsored by the parish chapter of the Republican Party. The audience of more than 50 people gathered at Café Américain gave Drake a round of applause when he finished.
Drake took over East Baton Rouge Parish schools in early June. He has returned to where he spent most of his early career, including six years as principal of Tara HighSchool. From 2002 to 2012, he served as superintendent of the new Zachary school district, which shot to the top of state academic rankings. From 2012 to this year, he coached other superintendents as a top administrator with the Louisiana Department of Education.
The state education agency, through its Recovery School District, is a big promoter of charter schools — public schools run by private groups via contracts. The RSD will oversee eight of the 25 charter schools in Baton Rouge this coming school year. Three of those eight RSD charter schools are new. The others are chartered by the parish school district or the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Drake noted that high-performing school districts such as Zachary and Ascension Parish don’t have charter schools.
“You have charter schools here because our schools didn’t live up to what parents expected,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”
As East Baton Rouge public schools improve, charter schools will slowly disappear, he predicted.
All RSD charter schools in Baton Rouge are housed in public schools formerly operated by the parish school system but taken over by the state due to chronic low academic performance.
One of those schools, Istrouma High School, was closed in 2014, sparking sporadic protests. It remains empty. RSD is planning to place yet another charter school there and has said it will decide the new tenant by October.
Drake said Tuesday that he wants Istrouma back.
North Baton Rouge has few high schools. Two high schools in the area — Redemptorist High and Career Academy — closed in May.
Drake said the Istrouma campus will need a lot of work, perhaps $10 million worth of repairs, and he is looking into how to finance them.
He said he has begun discussions with state leaders about getting the school back, but several obstacles block the way.
“Istrouma is extremely important. We need that school back,” he said. “I want it back with no strings attached.”
For instance, he said, he won’t agree to take it back if the state dictates the kind of school that must occupy that building.
As far as how the East Baton Rouge district is improving, Drake focused mostly on his push to find good school leaders, to improve the grounds and exteriors of school buildings, to draft business partners and to boost customer relations across the board. Drake also said he will act quickly on student misconduct that derails instruction.
“It’s not going to be tolerated,” he said. “They are going to be moved to some other school.”
In the months to come, he said, he is looking to reinvigorate neighborhood schools through adjusting attendance zones, shortening bus routes and creating more stability for parents who want to know not just the elementary but the middle and high schools their children will attend.
Drake also said he will take a closer look at the many magnet schools and gifted programs the school system offers. He described the current setup as “very convoluted,” noting that magnet schools can be divisive.
While well-established magnet schools such as Baton Rouge Magnet High are here to stay, Drake said, he’s looking at everything.
“Nothing’s not on the table to change,” he said.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.