The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday agreed to launch a new online school this fall to cater to both struggling and advanced students in a bid to grab a share of the burgeoning virtual education marketplace.
The board on Thursday also canceled a lease housing an alternative school at a Staring Lane shopping center and will move the school across town to share space with Northdale Superintendent’s Academy, saving $180,000 a year.
Finally, newly elected District 4 representative Dawn Collins was sworn in Thursday to serve on the School Board. Her mother, Yolanda Chanet, administered the oath of office. Collins will complete the unexpired term of Tarvald Smith, who resigned in November to fill a vacancy on Baton Rouge City Court.
Collins, 39, won a March 5 special election, garnering nearly 80 percent of the vote. She is the parent of two boys who graduated from Baton Rouge public high schools. Collins works as a political consultant and an instructor at Remington College and formerly served as chairwoman of the parish Democratic Party’s Executive Committee.
Collins’ first votes were in favor of both the virtual school and moving the school system’s expulsion center, known as EBR Readiness Superintendent’s Academy. Both items were approved unanimously without discussion. Board member Jill Dyason was absent.
Superintendent Warren Drake’s proposal for a new virtual schools has two parts:
A distance-learning program, meaning students will take classes at a district location that will enroll students who have dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out. It’s a variation on a program called Moving Forward the school system launched a year ago but failed to draw many students.
A virtual school catering to students not in the system who want a fast track to graduation, including home-schooled students. Like other such schools, EBR Virtual School would be open only to children who live in the school district and only to high school students. Unlike other district-run programs, it would be selective — only students who have a minimum 2.5 GPA and are at the national average or better on a yet-to-be determined standardized test would be eligible to enroll.
School officials say requiring a 2.5 GPA is needed to ensure students are motivated, independent learners and more likely to pass online courses.
Both programs are set to launch this fall, preceded by a promotional campaign.
The system is joining dozens of other school districts in Louisiana that have launched their own schools to compete with for-profit, publicly funded online schools. It also will be a second go at online schooling for the state’s second-largest school district.
The two biggest competitors, Louisiana Connections Academy and Louisiana Virtual Charter School, opened in 2011 and have grown quickly, currently educating more than 4,000 students statewide, more than 250 of them from Baton Rouge.
The school system’s lease with Town South shopping center, thanks to Thursday’s board action, will end this summer, saving about $15,000 a month. EBR Readiness Superintendent’s Academy will move from the south Baton Rouge shopping center 7 miles northeast to Northdale, 10755 Cletus Drive, in time for the start of the 2016-17 school year in August.
The move is part of a series of spending cuts aimed at closing a looming multimillion-dollar budget deficit for the school system.
EBR Readiness, formerly Valley Park Alternative School, is for expelled teenagers. Northdale also is an alternative school, but it is not a disciplinary school. It is a school of choice where students who are having trouble can catch up in a smaller setting.
Northdale has capacity for more than 500 students, more than the combined enrollment of the two schools. But Northdale’s campus, formerly Red Oaks Elementary School, is a traditional campus, different from the shopping center, which has no gym or outdoor area.
But the Northdale campus is also much more open, raising questions about how to keep Northdale students from mixing with EBR Readiness students, who walk through metal detectors as they arrive at school.
School officials say they have a security plan, including having different schedules for the two schools that will share the same campus, as well as different bus entrances.
In 2013, the school system agreed to spend $3.7 million to move students from Valley Park to Town South shopping center, 1919 Staring Lane, so Valley Park could serve as the temporary home for Lee High School while that magnet school underwent a $54.7 million demolition and reconstruction.
Christopher Huddleston, senior pastor of St. James & God’s Way Church International in Baton Rouge, questioned spending so much money on Lee while cutting the budget when it came to kids in alternative schools.
“Every time there are budget cuts, they come from students who have the least and need the most,” Huddleston said.