One of Baton Rouge’s most sought after public elementary schools goes beyond the norm when it comes to the arts, with full-time staff who teach children how to play musical instruments, sing, write creatively, paint and perform on stage.
But the wealth of arts resources at Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts is under challenge as the East Baton Rouge Parish school system tries to figure out how to afford spending extra on magnet schools like BRCVPA even as it makes cuts year after year in other schools.
Several parents pressing to obtain greater protection for BRCVPA’s costly approach to the arts say they have faced backlash. One parent, who took her concerns straight to Superintendent Bernard Taylor, was subsequently barred from substitute teaching at the school any longer. She’d raised questions about the lack of an arts background and the past performance of the school’s principal, Myra Jordan, who started in January.
This parent, who asked that she not be named for fear of further repercussions, said the school and the school system are making it hard to press for change.
“We tried to go through the proper channels,” she said. “I feel that now they are trying to shut those channels off to us.”
Another parent, Kim Dwin, has similar concerns. On Tuesday, she and several other parents tried to persuade the school’s parent-teacher organization to petition the School Board to better define the school’s mission. Afterward, she said she was told that PTO is not the place to bring such concerns. The Advocate was barred from attending this meeting.
“What’s the purpose of the PTO if not to discuss things that are for the betterment of the kids?” asked Dwin.
The anxiety began a year ago when then-BRCVPA Principal Mark Richterman, faced with cutting 8 percent of his $2 million budget, announced he would cut the school’s visual arts teacher and shift toward training core classroom teachers to handle those duties. Upset parents immediately started an online petition that garnered 234 signatures. Under fire, Richterman restored the visual arts class with a different teacher.
That didn’t quell parent concerns. Worried about future cuts, several parents began looking for ways to protect the school’s art staff.
The school system is facing its seventh consecutive year of budget cuts.
School Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, whose own children attended BRCVPA, was critical publicly of cutting the arts teacher.
She said that her oldest daughter, who transferred to the school in third grade, “went from failing grades to an A student, from being a shy introvert to being comfortable in her own skin.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about arts education,” Ware-Jackson said. “I’ve seen what it’s done in more than one child’s life.”
Ware-Jackson said she’d like to legally define BRCVPA and other magnet schools so that future cuts or changes in leadership don’t jeopardize the schools’ missions.
“I want to make sure the integrity of the magnet programs would be intact regardless of the principal,” Ware-Jackson said.
While dismayed at recent events, Ware-Jackson has helped BRCVPA’s parents only so much, to avoid accusations of micro-management.
“I try to stay out as much as possible, because I don’t want to break the law,” she said.
School Board member Barbara Freiberg has also gotten involved.
“I’m very concerned about what’s going on over there,” Freiberg said. “There’s a lot of serious issues, and I’m not on one side or the other.”
Richterman, BRCVPA’s principal for 12 years, announced in early December he was returning to retirement. On Dec. 19, just as Christmas break was starting, parents learned that Myra Varmall, principal of Forest Heights Academy of Excellence, would run BRCVPA. On Jan. 9, without explanation, parents then learned that Myra Jordan would be the school’s principal.
It didn’t help that Howell Park, Jordan’s previous school, declined from a D to an F grade, while Ryan Elementary, her school before Howell Park, declined from a B to a D. BRCVPA is an A school.
Superintendent Taylor has met twice since with BRCVPA parents, on Jan. 15 and on March 12. This reporter was allowed to attend one of the Jan. 15 meetings but was kicked out of a March 12 meeting.
At the January meeting, Taylor defended Jordan, blaming Howell Park’s decline on difficulty hiring teachers there. He did not explain why she was a good choice for BRCVPA. He also noted repeatedly that Jordan was an interim principal, not permanent, implying he was open to hearing parent concerns about her before deciding whether to make Jordan permanent.
The parent later barred from being a substitute teacher at BRCVPA took Taylor up on that implication. She’d been hearing of faculty who might be seeking other jobs.
In late February, she emailed several board members as well as Taylor, including detailed research on Jordan’s past, particularly at Ryan Elementary.
Taylor interpreted the email as a personal attack, and immediately, without asking the parent first, forwarded the email directly to Jordan.
“Anytime a person is making an assertion about the principal, they deserve the right to answer that assertion,” he told The Advocate in a March 13 interview.
Taylor defended the decision to bar the parent from continuing as a substitute teacher at BRCVPA, saying she’s a district employee who criticized a superior. Taylor also defended Jordan’s lack of an arts background.
“We don’t hire principals to be theme specialists,” he said. “We hire them to focus on academic achievement.”
That same day, Taylor released a list of 112 administrators whom he’d decided to make permanent. One was Jordan.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.