Finding good principals and letting them do their job is a big part of Warren Drake’s prescription for educational success, but the East Baton Rouge Parish school superintendent stops short of endorsing the level of school autonomy typical downriver in New Orleans.
Contrary to state Superintendent of Education John White and other education reformers, Drake said Baton Rouge is a much different place and it doesn’t make sense for the Capital City to mimic the Crescent City’s charter school-dominated approach to public education.
“Baton Rouge is Baton Rouge,” Drake said flatly Friday.
Speaking before The Advocate’s editorial board, Drake was quick to emphasize that the parish school system has several good charter schools it has authorized and that all schools, all good organizations have features that traditional public schools can learn from.
“I’m not against charter schools,” he said. “I’m for good schools.”
Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via short-term contracts, or charters. Baton Rouge’s number of charter schools has grown from three to 25 in the past decade. New Orleans had just a handful of charter schools pre-Katrina but is now almost exclusively populated by charter schools. Charter school advocates would like Baton Rouge to shift more rapidly and become more like New Orleans.
In 2014, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber drafted and promoted unsuccessful legislation that would have accelerated that change. It would have shifted most power in Baton Rouge from superintendent and school boards to school principals, whose schools would operate under three-year contracts, similar to how charter schools operate.
Drake is not a fan of that approach.
“I want to hire strong principals and get out of their way,” he said.
But he wants them to focus on instruction and the classroom, noting that principals already function as chief executive officers and consequently have a lot of responsibility.
“If they were the (chief financial officer) in addition to being the CEO, they would be distracted,” he said. “They don’t need to be at the computer all day. They need to be out in the classroom.”
Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said Drake’s work so far has renewed confidence among members of the business community. His actions, particularly the recent downsizing of the Central Office, are in keeping with the principles behind the BRAC legislation, Knapp said.
“The fact that EBR schools has a superintendent saying he wants to hire strong principals and get out of their way is a sign of major progress,” Knapp said. “The real focus of our bill was strong schools and school leaders and less micromanagement by the central office.”
Drake also said he plans to scale back a limited experiment in financial autonomy that then-Superintendent Bernard Taylor launched in response to the chamber-developed legislation. It allows principals to pick and choose which positions they have on staff, with the exception of core classroom teachers.
In the two years since that experiment in school-based budgeting started, several schools have eliminated positions for librarians, secretaries and counselors. Drake said it’s gone too far, and he’s working with schools to restore those positions.
“I think every school should have a librarian, a secretary and a counselor,” he said.