A new career-oriented charter school set to open in August may be joining forces with the Louisiana Department of Education to rescue the troubled Capitol High Academy.
The details are still emerging, but Nancy Roberts, executive director of the nonprofit group behind the new Career Academy, said the two sides plan to meet Thursday. “We’ve agreed in concept to a partnership,” she said.
Dennis Blunt, a member of the board of 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge, which won the charter to take over Capitol High in spring 2008, said 100 Black Men was formally alerted to the proposal late last week and would likely “wholeheartedly” support it.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system, however, is not yet on board.
School Board President Barbara Freiberg said she’s concerned about having two schools run simultaneously by Career Academy, which the board granted a Type 1 charter to in May 2010.
Freiberg said she considers the career school a crucial effort to provide teenagers with marketable job skills as they exit high school. She said she is worried that running the career school while also trying to run a small high school might be too much for the Career Academy leaders to handle.
“It’s so important that they get that first year right,” Freiberg said.
John White, superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, said the Career Academy’s charter would have to be amended, but he’s receiving conflicting legal opinions about whether that would require simply Freiberg’s approval or the full board’s.
“The authority to approve the amendment of the charter is in question,” White said.
Roberts said Capitol High is a more central location than the Career Academy’s planned site of now closed Brookstown Elementary, has more space and was built to be a high school.
Roberts said she’s confident that the Career Academy can operate its long-planned school and a traditional high school.
White, from the Recovery School District, was similarly optimistic.
“These are two small schools, so it helps to have each school share resources with the other,” he said.
The new Career Academy is planning to start the 2011-12 school year with 200 ninth- and 10th-graders and is supposed to eventually have 700 students.
Capitol High Academy, technically separated into separate boys and girls schools, had 281 students as of Feb. 1, and has been shedding students for years. In 1999, the school had 1,004 students enrolled.
Roberts said her main condition is that the Career Academy’s principal, Pam Mackie, the former principal of Valley Park Alternative School, have sole control of the campus rather than separate administrations for each school.
Amy Westbrook, deputy superintendent for the state-run Recovery School District, visited the Capitol High School Alumni Association on Monday to brief them about the plans.
Johnathan Hill, president of the alumni association, said the group generally liked what they heard, but said there were few details.
“The alumni seemed to be somewhat excited about some career opportunities, some industrial arts,” he said. “Alumni have been talking about that kind of thing for a while.”
When 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge won the charter from the state to try to improve Capitol High, the group hired the for-profit school operations company EdisonLearning.
Blunt said 100 Black Men quit using EdisonLearning in part because of financial problems. The for-profit company left the charter school in financial disarray, in debt and behind in completing its annual 2009-10 audit, he said.
For instance, the parish school system says it’s owed $153,000 for unpaid services to Capitol High going back to September; Blunt said 100 Black Men plans to pay that bill by the end of June.
In a written statement, EdisonLearning spokesman Michael Serpe said the partnership with 100 Black Men, which concluded Feb. 28, had a common goal of establishing a quality educational environment.
“However, differing viewpoints on the best approaches to fulfill this commitment to Capitol High’s students brought both our organizations to the conclusion that it was best that we end our working relationship,” Serpe said.
After an unsuccessful search for a replacement for EdisonLearning, 100 Black Men turned to the parish school system to try to run Capitol.
Blunt said the school system would only agree to run the school if 100 Black Men relinquished the charter, which the group agreed to do in May.
Blunt, however, said he wants 100 Black Men to have a continuing role with the school, which White, with the Recovery School District, said he’s agreeable to.
Freiberg said East Baton Rouge Parish has tried unsuccessfully in recent weeks to persuade the state Department of Education to return Capitol High Academy back to its control. She agreed that Capitol High also struggled when run by the parish school system.
“I can understand their concern about giving that school back to EBR,” she said.
“I think they still feel they can do a better job,” she added.
White said the state hasn’t had the time to consider and implement what the school system has been suggesting.
“It’s very important that in a time like this, let’s not be hasty. Let’s step in, stabilize the school,” he said. “Let’s take the time to do this right and do what’s necessary for kids.”
White said that bringing in Career Academy may only be a one-year proposition. He said the plan is over the next year to work with groups like 100 Black Men and the Capitol High alumni, as well as the parish school system, to find a viable solution going forward.
“It’s fair to say that our sense of urgency is very high that we have to get this plan approved and get to work,” White said.