Baker has more children in public schools than it’s had in years, but fewer are enrolling in the city school system.
Two new competitors, Advantage and Impact charter schools, have set up shop within the city limits of Baker. As of Wednesday, these public schools had enrolled nearly 500 students between them, 356 and 141 students, respectively.
Many of those students appear to have come from Baker. The schools, however, also are recruiting from neighboring districts, particularly the East Baton Rouge and East Feliciana parish school systems.
For its part, Baker is down 179 students at its five schools, or almost 11 percent, compared to a year ago. Three schools have lost about 100 students each, losses partially offset by gains at Baker High and Park Ridge Academic Magnet schools.
Add all these schools together, and you get 1,991 students. That’s the highest number of students attending public schools in Baker since 2009. That total is likely to grow as Advantage and Impact expand.
Baker is a microcosm of what’s happening across East Baton Rouge Parish.
A wave of new school choices in the parish, many heavily promoting themselves, is drawing students away from traditional school districts, and many of these schools are not confined to the boundaries of the districts in which they are competing.
Charter schools are public schools, but they are run by private groups via short-term contracts, or charters.
Charter schools are bitterly opposed by many traditional public school district leaders because they draw students, along with their per-pupil funding, away from traditional schools. Traditional schools also argue that charters primarily reward private interests and are typically little different than the schools with which they are competing.
Supporters argue they provide much-needed choice for children who would otherwise be limited to their neighborhood public schools.
Baker, not used to the competition, is feeling the pinch already.
On Tuesday, the Baker School Board approved a $1.1 million deficit in its $16.7 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. It blamed the shortfall on competition from charter schools.
Baker leaders say they hope to recoup some of that money by attracting students back to their schools and holding down expenses. Failing that, Baker may be facing midyear budget cuts.
Advantage and Impact are Type 2 charters. That means they can draw students from neighboring school districts, which is one reason why the overall number of students in Baker is growing. The five other Type 2 charter schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, conversely, also can and do draw students from Baker and other school districts.
To get a handle on the changing school picture, The Advocate asked for and received enrollment numbers from every public school in East Baton Rouge Parish, which covers schools run by East Baton Rouge Parish, Baker, Central, Zachary and the state-run Recovery school districts. That total also includes two university lab schools and seven independent charter schools such as Advantage and Impact.
All counts were taken Wednesday, about three to four weeks into the 2014-15 school year.
The state takes two official enrollment counts each school year: one on Oct. 1, the second on Feb. 1. These counts drive school funding. That ranges from as little as $7,760 per child in Acadia Parish to as much as $11,212 per child in Caldwell Parish.
All told, 60,315 students were enrolled in 120 public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish Wednesday. On Oct. 1, 58,857 students were enrolled in 116 schools in the parish. That’s an increase of 1,458 students.
All but one of the new schools is a charter school. Overall, charter schools in the parish have increased from 14 to 23, and their collective enrollment has grown from 3,900 to more than 7,100 students. They now educate almost 12 percent of the children in public school in the parish.
The state’s publicly funded private school voucher program has expanded, too. Children who attend public schools with C, D and F academic letter grades are eligible, and they can transfer to any of the 133 private schools in the state accepting vouchers.
Twenty-one private schools in East Baton Rouge Parish accept vouchers, enrolling 1,300 voucher students last year. This year, they are set to offer as many as 1,700 voucher seats. The state plans to update voucher enrollment numbers later in September.
The East Baton Rouge Parish public school system is both fighting and awkwardly embracing charter schools. Ten of the 23 charter schools in the parish are Type 1 charters, meaning they are privately run schools that contract directly with the school system. They also can draw students only from within the school district.
These 10 schools are enrolling 2,920 students, about 700 students more than last year. That has allowed the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to report an increase of about 200 students in overall enrollment since last year.
The two newest charters schools, both of which are Type 1, are on the opposite sides of Baton Rouge, J.K. Haynes Middle School, 2401 72nd Ave., which is in the Scotlandville area, and South Baton Rouge Charter Academy, 9422 Burbank Drive, on the edge of Gardere. On Wednesday, they had enrolled 216 and 506 students, respectively. They are operating in grades six to eight, and kindergarten to six, respectively.
South Baton Rouge Charter Academy is run by the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Charter Schools USA and is the group’s third school in the Baton Rouge metro area. It has the option of adding a fourth school in Baker. The for-profit charter school management company has made a big foray into Louisiana and is expanding fast.
This year it also launched Iberville Charter Academy in Plaquemine. That school, a Type 2 charter, had 294 students enrolled Wednesday. The school has prompted a lawsuit by the Iberville Parish School Board over how the state funds charter schools.
Advantage Charter Academy in Baker also is run by a for-profit charter company, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies. Like Charter Schools USA, National Heritage Academies is expanding in Louisiana. The group has a school already in Baton Rouge, Inspire Charter Academy, which had 580 students enrolled Wednesday.
Charter Schools USA and National Heritage Academies have similar models. They run K-8 elementary schools, often in buildings they construct, and they market their schools heavily. They offer before- and after-school care, a big draw. But they don’t provide transportation, meaning children have to find their way to school.
Advantage has opted not to build a new building, like Inspire did in 2010, but has instead renovated an old Wal-Mart at the corner of Plank and Groom roads, across the street from the new Baker School Board office, itself a converted car dealership.
Impact Charter Elementary is building a new 35,000-square-foot building about 2 miles away on Lavey Lane — it’s currently operating out of a small church nearby — and plans a renewed push for students when its new building opens up, scheduled for Sept. 30. It’s offering classes in kindergarten to third grades and is aiming to have about 200 students after the new building opens.
The schools will grow more over time. Advantage and Impact could eventually enroll more than 1,300 students between them.
Advantage Principal Clifford Wallace moved to Louisiana from Cleveland. He previously ran an NHA charter school in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid. He said he believes in order and has been happily surprised at how well behaved his students are.
“I heard all these horror stories before I came here, but I haven’t had any discipline problems,” he said.
He shows off the old Wal-Mart-turned-school. The building is large enough that it allows him to have a cafeteria and a gym. At previous schools, he said the two were the same, sometimes called a cafetorium.
“No longer do I have to cancel gym to have lunch,” Wallace said.
In contrast to Advantage, Impact is a home-grown charter school founded by Chakesha Scott. The school grew out of an after-school tutoring service she started. The school doesn’t have the marketing might of the for-profit charters, but it tries to differentiate itself by noting that it will provide transportation, in contrast to Advantage, and that it is trying to keep class sizes at around 20 students per teacher.
“We offer small class sizes with a high-energy school culture to keep students motivated and excited about coming to school every day to learn,” Scott said.
Here is a breakdown of student enrollment in 120 public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish on Wednesday, Sept. 3, as well change since the official Oct. 1, 2013 enrollment count:
EBR (87 schools): 42,599, +224
Baker (five): 1,494, -172
Central (five): 4,600, +182
Zachary (seven): 5,395, -124
RSD-Baton Rouge (six): 2,306, +37
Traditional (97): 53,183, -1,772
Charters (23): 7,132, +3,230
Total (120): 60,315, +1458
Source: Louisiana Department of Education; Advocate research