With the marketplace for Baton Rouge’s high-achieving students getting more crowded, particularly with the rebuilding and expansion of Lee High, students from McKinley and Woodlawn high schools hit the Main Library on Wednesday night to sing the praises of their schools.
The Baton Rouge Association of Gifted and Talented Students recruited the students to help families with gifted children in middle school make more-informed choices as they decide where to go to high school.
McKinley and Woodlawn are the two lone high schools in town that offer services for gifted students, but they do so as a small part of large, racially and academically diverse traditional high schools.
“I was surprised what a challenge it would be,” said Jessie Martin, an 11th-grader at Woodlawn High School who plays soccer. “I chose it because of sports.”
Sophie Sheffield, a sophomore at McKinley High, said she didn’t realize how advanced the work she’d be doing.
“Sometimes I step back and say, ‘Wow, we’re, like, 15 years old!’ ” she said. “This is so amazing.”
Despite such sentiments, the gifted programs at McKinley and Woodlawn high schools for years have lost hundreds of students to the allure of Baton Rouge Magnet High, a school that doesn’t offer gifted services but is one of the highest ranked academically in the state and recently won its third national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award.
Lee High may have a similar appeal. Like Baton Rouge Magnet, it is a dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet school that won’t have gifted services either but will have an extensive partnership with LSU, heavy emphasis on project-based learning and applying research, and a new $54.7 million new campus set to open for students in August.
Lee High, which has 460 students at its temporary location, is adding another 675 slots in three grades next year. Families began completing online applications for Lee and other Baton Rouge magnet schools on Oct. 12 and can continue applying through Dec. 5.
The principals of both McKinley and Woodlawn high schools were on hand Wednesday. They mostly listened to the students, but they each took the opportunity to talk up their schools to the audience of more than 50 people.
“When making that selection, visit the school, visit with the principals, ask those tough questions,” urged McKinley High Principal Herman Brister Jr. “Make those decisions based on what fits for your child, not based on what the street committee says.”
Woodlawn High Principal Scott Stevens emphasized how flexible his school is.
“I tell my students all the time, ‘If we don’t have something and you want it, write it up and submit a request,’ ” said Stevens. “I haven’t had anything that’s come to me that I’ve said no to.”
Danielle Massie, a junior at Woodlawn High, praised the school’s willingness to try to help her fit her diverging passions into her schedule.
“I’m the captain of the dance team and captain of the robotics team, and I actually have time for both. They make sure I have time for both,” Massie said.
Stevens, however, said the school can’t do everything it would like to do right away.
“We can’t just build everything all at once,” Stevens said.
The two schools have 410 gifted students between them: 280 at McKinley and 130 at Woodlawn. Both schools also have students in Great Scholars, a “near-gifted” program that parallels gifted classes and uses the same teachers; it accepts high-achieving students a bit short of gifted level.
A big difference between gifted and more-traditional programs is class size. Louisiana high schools limit class sizes to 33 students to one teacher. Gifted classes in Baton Rouge, though, have class sizes capped at 19-to-1, and they are often smaller.
“The individual attention is what the makes the gifted program so great,” said Sam Wallace, a senior at McKinley High.
De’Anthieus Clayton, a senior at Woodlawn High, said the small classes have allowed him to forge close relations with his teachers.
“You never feel like you’re talking to a stranger, like you’re talking to a brick wall,” Clayton said.
The nine students on the panel listed a wide range of activities they are involved in and said they spend lot of time at school.
“I consider school my second home,” said Heidi Fendlason, a 10th grader at Woodlawn High.
Past graduates of McKinley and Woodlawn also have warm things to say about their alma maters.
“The impact McKinley High has on the students and the community is immeasurable,” said Max Martin, who graduated in May and now attends LSU.
He said the school could be even greater if the school system lavished the attention on McKinley it’s lavishing on the magnet high schools. Martin said McKinley is predominantly black, in a less desirable neighborhood and is perceived — wrongly in his view — to be rife with violence and drugs, and that all hurts the school’s appeal.
“If it was on College Drive, you wouldn’t have this problem,” he said sourly.
Vincent Honey, a junior at McKinley, told the audience he feels safe at the school and they should, too.
“I would like to assure that your safety is of the utmost importance to our faculty and the staff at McKinley,” Honey said.
Ali Poor, a 2014 graduate of Woodlawn High and now attending LSU, said she relished the connection to the community she found at Woodlawn. While still a student in the gifted program at Glasgow Middle School, she visited Woodlawn and fell in love. Frustrated with a 25-minute drive to school, her family moved to a Shenandoah subdivision to be closer to school, and now her brother attends Woodlawn.
“My two best friends live in my neighborhood. I can get to one of their house in two minutes, another in five,” she said. “I could do more things after school, do more plays, sing in choir.”
Rohin Gilman, a 10th-grader at McKinley, said the students grow close and they help each other do better.
“When everybody is interested in doing the best they can academically, they really feed on each other,” Gilman said.