Superintendent Warren Drake tried to assure a concerned audience Wednesday night that the East Baton Rouge Parish school system won’t go cheap as it prepares to reopen Istrouma High School.
Drake, who took over as superintendent in June, immediately began pressing to regain control of Istrouma, which was under state control. The school finally was returned to local control in mid-January.
On Wednesday, Drake pledged to the more than 100 people gathered in the Winbourne Elementary auditorium that he won’t go “halfway” when it comes to reopening Istrouma.
The cost to do it right, he said, will require between $17 million and $20 million. While the school’s “bones” are strong, he said, its electrical, air-conditioning and other systems need to be replaced.
Gary Chambers, an activist and publisher of TheRougeCollection.net, a commentary website dedicated to local black issues, questioned whether that’s an equitable amount of money. He noted the school system has spent a lot more money in recent years to renovate and expand Baton Rouge Magnet High, which reopened in 2012, and to rebuild Lee High, which is reopening in August.
“Is $17 (million) to $20 million doing it right? Or is $54 (million) to $56 million doing it right?” Chambers asked.
Drake said that kind of money isn’t needed.
“If we put $15 (million) to $20 million there at Istrouma, you are going to have a state-of-the-art facility,” Drake said.
Getting just to $17 million will require downscaling other long-planned projects. Drake has suggested downscaling either the new Ardendale career academy in Melrose East or Park Elementary School.
“What kind of reassurance can you give that the money will be there?” asked Michael Stewart, a 1996 Istrouma High graduate.
East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Jacqueline Mims, who has been involved with Istrouma High for decades, said she has faith in Drake.
“I know him to be who he presents himself to be,” Mims said. “And if he wasn’t, trust me, I would tell you that.”
Mims, however, urged the audience to press the rest of the School Board to find the money needed by coming to board meetings and participating.
“You can’t hold them accountable if you are not involved and you are not informed,” she said.
Istrouma High first opened in 1917 and moved to its current location at 3730 Winbourne Ave. in 1950. The state took over the north Baton Rouge high school in 2012 due to its chronic low academic performance. The state closed the high school in 2014.
Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton said the Istrouma reopening plan is to move Brookstown Middle School to Istrouma High School’s campus and have it feed into a traditional high school that draws students currently zoned for Belaire High School. Brookstown has a growing magnet program, and the idea is to make it as attractive as Istrouma Middle was before it as closed in 2004, she said.
In addition, the new Istrouma High will have a specialized academy, likely focusing on career and technical education that will draw students from a wider area, she said.
Antoine Pierce, who announced earlier this week he is running for the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council District 8 seat in south Baton Rouge, urged the school system to find ways to make Istrouma more racially diverse than the predominantly black school it had been for most of its recent history. A 1999 graduate of Istrouma High, Pierce said he’s concerned the plans for Istrouma don’t go far enough to attract diversity and that “for lack of a better word, it will be segregated.”
“The ethnic diversity of the school will reflect the community that it is in,” Pierce said. “And we have no doubt about what that community looks like.”
Drake said if they create a good enough school, over time a diverse group of people will come.
“I plan for this school to be the very best, top-notch technologically, athletically, programmatically and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Metro Councilman LaMont Cole, who is also a veteran educator, said the new school needs a plan to recruit and retain the best teachers to be successful.
“If there are not quality people working in those buildings, you will be right back in the position you were in 2011-12,” Cole said.
Ashley Collier recently moved back to north Baton Rouge but was upset to learn Istrouma High was no longer around. She now sends her daughter to Broadmoor High School, a long commute she doesn’t like for her daughter. Like Cole, she expressed concern the state would again take over Istrouma High in the future.
“Once Istrouma’s open, what’s the guarantee that it won’t slip the cracks yet again?” Collier asked.
Associate Superintendent Adam Smith said the answer is for parents of teenagers to take greater interest in how their children are doing.
“How do we ensure Istrouma High is successful?” he asked. “We stay involved.”