The East Baton Rouge Parish school system welcomed back from summer break 42,405 children for the first day of school Thursday, slightly more than enrolled on the first days of the previous two years and a reversal of years of small but steady enrollment declines.
The increase for the start of the 2015-16 school year is a mild surprise given growing competition from independent charter schools. Four new charter schools, all authorized by the state, have opened their doors this week, and a handful of previously approved charter schools added grades and students.
Louisiana’s official enrollment count is not taken until Oct. 1.
As he visited schools Thursday, starting before sunrise, new East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake noticed amid the welcoming smiles of school staff the telltale signs of first-day energy but also jitters.
“No matter how many times I do this, the first day of school is always exciting,” Drake said. “You don’t sleep well the night before, and you wake up too early.”
At Jefferson Terrace Elementary, teachers were out in force to make sure children got where they need to go. They pinned name tags on the youngest children and explained where the colored lines on the ground led.
Parents were in abundance as well.
“We’re giving parents free rein today,” explained Principal Debra Adebutu.
Sebastian — he prefers to be called by his comedic stage name “T-Bazz” — Fort escorted daughter Savannah Grace to her second-grade classroom. With her brand-new backpack decorated with the princess from the hit movie “Frozen,” Grace seemed assured and happy to be back. Dad also tutored her over the summer on her weaker subjects.
“I worked on math with her over the summer. She didn’t like it,” he said.
Jefferson Terrace was covered with pictures of superheroes.
Ruth Williams’ prekindergarten classroom displayed the phrase, “Super Heroes in Training.”
“We want them to feel that they are heroes. We want them to feel they can do whatever they put their minds to,” she said.
Felicity Young, a third-grade teacher, said she planned to get right to the hero theme on day one.
“Today, they are going to be learning about each other, learning our rules and procedures and what being a JT hero is all about,” Young said.
High schools were the most crowded facilities. Belaire, Baton Rouge Magnet, Broadmoor, McKinley, Tara and Woodlawn high schools all had at least 1,100 students each. Glen Oaks and Lee high schools were the smallest high schools with 645 and 476 students, respectively .
Lee High School, however, is growing fast and now fills its temporary home, the former Valley Park Junior High School at 4510 Bawell St. Its 205 ninth-graders represent its biggest class by far.
“We’re on top of each other. We’re using closets, everything,” said Associate Principal Sharon Sims. “But we’ll make it work until we get into the new building.”
The high school is being rebuilt and is scheduled in fall 2016 to move back to its historic home two miles away at 1105 Lee Drive. Its new $54.7 million, 21st-century campus will feature three independent academies with distinct themes: bioscience, digital and media arts, and engineering and robotics. The new high school’s capacity, once complete, will be about 1,200 students, more than double its current enrollment.
Anthony Basso was one of the incoming freshmen. Clearly a bit shy being at a new school, Basso said he’s happy that several classmates from Sherwood Middle Magnet School followed him to Lee.
His grandmother, Ruth McNease, said she’s glad Basso got into Lee but said it’s been a learning experience.
“We’re not very knowledgeable about the magnet program, but we’re learning,” McNease said.
The middle schools ranged more widely in enrollment from 232 students at North Banks Middle to 1,089 at Westdale Middle.
One school that continues to have difficulty drawing students is Capitol Middle School, which had only 452 students enrolled Thursday. The numbers were low despite an expanded attendance zone and the addition of new programs to the school in June.
One newer middle school that opened in 2014, Brookstown Middle Magnet Academy, is growing. This north Baton Rouge school had 419 students enrolled Thursday, about 170 more than were enrolled on its first day a year ago.