Three tiny charter schools land on one campus with hopes of future expansion _lowres (copy)

Baton Rouge Bridge Academy's Ashley Smith, left, leads Romeo Baltazar, 5, center, and Kai'men Brown, 5, down the hall, following a red line that is a fun way to teach the kids how to follow rules in September 2015 at the school. Two new charter schools, Baton Rouge College Prep and Baton Rouge Bridge Academy, joined UP Elementary at the former Glen Oaks Middle School in Baton Rouge. But is 2018 Bridge Academy and UP Elementary are leaving Glen Oaks.

Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING

Recently home to three different charter schools, the former Glen Oaks Middle School campus in north Baton Rouge will soon house just one.

Locating multiple new schools in one place is common in other cities as a way to incubate charter schools, but it’s rare for the capital. By summer, this particular charter incubation experiment will be over.

UP Elementary, the first to move in August 2014, left last summer after three years at the old Glen Oaks Middle school site on Monarch Avenue. UP — short for Baton Rouge University Prep — has been operating temporarily since the Living Faith Academy of Excellence school campus on Winbourne Avenue.

UP plans to move again this summer to a permanent home on Howell Boulevard, just south of the Baton Rouge Metro Airport, part of the Howell Place development. On Wednesday, the school held a groundbreaking ceremony on its 6.4-acre site, where it plans to build a new facility that eventually will house as many as 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It currently has 276 students in kindergarten through third grade.

This summer is also when Baton Rouge Bridge Academy plans to leave the former Glen Oaks Middle campus. Bridge, which moved there in 2015, is surrendering its charter effective June 30. It is instead joining forces with a new player in town, Texas-based IDEA Public Schools. IDEA has agreed to let Baton Rouge Bridge move its entire operation, as well as its 185 students in  kindergarten through second grade, into a school it is building near Cortana Mall, one of two Baton Rouge campuses that the highly regarded charter management organization is opening in August. IDEA has gone so far as to rename the campus IDEA Bridge.

That leaves Baton Rouge College Preparatory Academy as the former Glen Oaks Middle campus’ lone occupant. Unlike the schools that are leaving, both elementary schools, Baton Rouge College Prep is a middle school with 250 students in grades five to eight.

As a middle school, it’s similar to Glen Oaks Middle, the neighborhood school that operated on Monarch Avenue from 1955 to 2008 until it was taken over after years of low academic performance and placed into the state-run Recovery School District.

Baton Rouge College Prep, which moved here in 2015, is holding off on plans to add a high school. This summer, it will take over space vacated by Baton Rouge Bridge Academy.

Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via contracts, or charters. These three are among 26 charter schools that operate in East Baton Rouge Parish.

They were developed through the Boston-based incubator program Building Excellent Schools. Of the three schools, Baton Rouge College Prep is the only school with students in tested grades; it earned a C academic letter grade in 2016, and its scores were waived in 2017 thanks to the instability caused by the August 2016 flood. UP Elementary’s current third-graders will soon take the LEAP test, and the school will get its first letter grade in the fall.

Standing in a field of tall grass Wednesday on land that will soon be her school, Meghan Turner, the founder of UP Elementary, talked about the long, difficult journey to get to construction.

“This has been the most difficult year we’ve had so far,” Turner said.

In 2016, Turner persuaded the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to exchange her more limited Type 5 charter for a more expansive Type 2 charter; Baton Rouge Bridge and Baton Rouge College Prep unsuccessfully tried to exchange their Type 5 charters for more flexible charters.

That Type 2 charter freed Turner to find a new home for the school, but securing one was a struggle right up to Wednesday’s groundbreaking. She said her mother called her Tuesday, just a day before, and asked if the ceremony was still a go.

“I said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Turner recalled with a laugh.

Turner said she expects the general contractor, J.F. Juge Construction in Prairieville, should start work any day at the Howell Boulevard site, with a first phase complete by August and a second phase built over the following year.

The departure of Baton Rouge Bridge Academy from Monarch Avenue is more bittersweet. The academy's founder, Chloe Wiley, said giving up the school’s charter is akin to losing a child.

“We started this thing from scratch. We didn’t have any money, any kids, any teachers,” Wiley said. “It’s special. It’s hard in that way, but I think it’s all for the best.”

In joining IDEA, though, Wiley is signing up with an organization that's on the move. Launched in the Rio Grande Valley, IDEA runs 61 schools, educates 36,000 children and expects to open 18 more schools in 2018. It has schools that have made national best high school lists. All of its schools, so far, are in the Rio Grande, Austin and San Antonio areas of Texas.

The shift to IDEA, Wiley said, grew out of months of conversations with Kenneth Campbell, executive director of IDEA Southern Louisiana, about the uncertain future of her school.

And last fall, there were conversations with every family at the school as well as the entire staff. All of her staff and all but a handful of students are following her, she said.

“We wanted to be really, really sure that we could continue to build on the work we’ve done with families,” Wiley said.

The new IDEA Bridge, which is under construction, will have space for roughly double Bridge’s current enrollment. There’s also separate, secondary “College Prep” program launching simultaneously on the same campus with just sixth grade under the leadership of Cecilia Aquilar. She has been serving as a principal in residency with IDEA.

Baton Rouge College Prep, for its part, has no immediate moving or expansion plans.

Founder Kathryn Rice said the facility at Glen Oaks Middle is too small to house a proper high school. Instead, the school’s strategy these days is to prepare its students to gain admission to the better high schools in town.

“Half of our eighth-graders are eligible for magnet high schools,” Rice said.

Rice said she is considering in the future creating a new high school somewhere in Baton Rouge, but a visit to local magnet schools last fall showed her how big a hill that would be to climb.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow it would take me years to do what these schools already have,’ ” Rice recalled.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.