In a bid to make southeast Baton Rouge public schools more competitive with private schools — and also to head off interest in creating a city of St. George — Woodlawn Middle and High schools are launching new magnet programs this coming school year.
School starts Aug. 9, just nine weeks away. Billboards have sprouted up in the area, flyers and brochures are landing in stores and restaurants. Promotional events are being planned. Teachers and coordinators have been hired. And an online application has been set up.
Acknowledging he opted too late to seek community input, East Baton Rouge Parish Superintend…
The time from approval to launch will be less than four months.
“Our goal is to attract as many students possible from the private schools and parochial schools in the area,” said Theresa Porter, director of magnet schools for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
With the addition of Woodlawn Middle and High schools, the district will have 23 schools offering magnet programs, with the best-known program at Baton Rouge Magnet High. Like Baton Rouge Magnet High, students who want to enroll in the new programs at Woodlawn Middle and High schools are required to have a 2.5 GPA for the four previous semesters and to do well on a standardized test.
Initially developed as a tool for school desegregation, magnets use the allure of specialized programming to try to create racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.
The new programs at Woodlawn Middle and High schools are described as focused on science, technology, engineering and math. They are growing out of specializations the two schools already offer, including popular robotics classes at the two schools and sports medicine. Engineering and computer science classes are also being added to course offerings. And the high school is looking to expand its Advanced Placement and dual enrollment options over time.
“It’s just kind of building on where we are at this point, but as we get more students in the program, we will be expanding into something new,” said Woodlawn High Principal Scott Stevens.
At the middle school, Principal Raquel Brown said she hopes to expand the number of classes that earn high school credit. She also plans to loop in the school’s band and string classes into the new magnet program, giving it an arts element.
“I’m very excited to have the program, and I’m glad we are able to offer parents and students even more choices,” Brown said.
Neither school is starting small or rolling things out slowly. They will open magnet seats in all grades except 12th, rather than opening one grade at a time and growing. And the goal is that half the students at the two large public schools eventually will attend the magnet program.
“We can’t wait,” said parish School Board member Jill Dyason. “The community in the southeast area is just really tired of waiting and being put on hold. The time is now.”
This restive area, of course, is the heart of the would-be city of St. George that in 2015 came up just short of getting on the ballot. The plan was to create a city and then break away from the parish school system to form an independent public school district. Supporters have vowed to try again.
Dyason, who has represented the area on the parish School Board since 2001, was a key player in adding gifted courses to Woodlawn Middle and High schools nearly a decade ago. And she’s always questioned why popular magnet programs were absent from her School Board district but were common in other Baton Rouge neighborhoods.
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The idea to launch new magnets at the Woodlawn schools so fast, however, first emerged publicly in early April.
The previous month, Dyason had been pressing to change the attendance lines for the middle and high schools but was getting pushback from other board members. So, she said, she began talking with school system administrators about what else they could do to generate more interest in the schools, and the idea for the new magnet programs emerged.
In presenting the idea to the board on April 6, Superintendent Warren Drake was explicit that he was looking for ways to dim interest in the St. George movement.
“We don’t want southeast Baton Rouge to break away. I want those students to stay,” Drake said.
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In a similar vein, the board in May approved Scottsdale, Arizona-based Basis Schools to create a school with kindergarten through 12th grade that would grow to almost 900 students.
The charter school plans to build a campus on the property of Women’s Hospital, which is near Woodlawn High School. It’s set to open in fall 2018 with grades kindergarten to sixth and expand a grade at time after that. Basis has gained worldwide recognition on international exams when its students outscored those from some of the top-scoring nations.
Given the late start, the new magnet programs at Woodlawn Middle and High schools are expected to have relatively few students at first, but principals at both schools say they already are hearing from interested parents in private schools and families moving into the area.
Students already enrolled at the schools who meet the eligibility requirements are being allowed to apply now.
In the future, both principals say they will have to figure out ways to find space to accommodate the influx of new students.
The middle school has more than 800 students enrolled, and the high school has more than 1,100 students. Both have been bigger at times in the past — more than 1,000 students at the middle school and more than 1,500 students at the high school — but if as successful as envisioned, the new magnet programs could break those enrollment records.
"We can fit everyone,” Stevens, the Woodlawn High principal, said cautiously. “It’s almost a chess game to fit all the pieces where they need to be.”
Stevens added that some teachers may have to change rooms more frequently as space becomes an issue.
Dyason said she’s hoping to build new schools in the area to give Woodlawn Middle and High schools room to grow.
She noted that there already are plans to build a school on 20 acres in the Jefferson Terrace area. She said the school system plans to start designs on that school in December and she’d like to see either a neighborhood middle school or a middle-high school built on the property.
Another option, further down the road, is to build a new high school in the fast-growing areas south of Interstate 10. Dyason said she plans to push for that idea when debates start up soon about what kind of new construction should occur when voters are asked in 2018 to renew a 1-cent sales tax that funds most school construction in the parish.