Baton Rouge will soon be home to its first arts conservatory — “the Juilliard of Baton Rouge” — where local teenagers can cultivate their skills for possible careers in music, film, dance, theater and visual arts.
The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday approved the idea unanimously. Board member Dadrius Lanus, who previously said he supported the proposal, left the meeting early.
The new school was strongly championed by Superintendent Sito Narcisse, who has worked in cities with similar schools. Recently, he organized a trip to Miami with six board members to visit arts-focused magnet schools and glean some ideas about how to replicate their success.
An East Baton Rouge delegation led by Superintendent Sito Narcisse and several School Board members are visiting Miami next week to visit arts…
The new magnet in Baton Rouge, scheduled to open in fall 2023, will occupy the vacant campus of Broadmoor Middle School, a campus already in line for $15 million in renovations. It would also be home to summer camps and after-school arts classes accessible to students across the district.
The new school is one of several new attractions that Narcisse is proposing to draw new families and reverse years of enrollment declines at traditional public schools.
Besides the new conservatory school, Narcisse is proposing three new initiatives in a school district already replete with magnet programs. One would at nearby Broadmoor Elementary School, also focusing on visual and performing arts, which would serve as a feeder for the new conservatory.
The arts conservatory proposal drew heavy backing from arts groups in Baton Rouge as well as several arts educators in the parish.
Renee Chatelain, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, said the new school will be a “catalyst” for improving arts education across the community.
She said she’s already talking to artists from Baton Rouge who’ve left urging them to come back and teach at the new school at least for short stints
"I’m asking them, 'Please come back and be adjuncts,'" Chatelain said.
Paige Colwell, an arts teacher at McKinley Middle, said a conservatory-style school would have been a godsend if it had been around when she was growing up here.
“We would be stupid not to do this,” Colwell said.
Board members Dawn Collins, Tramelle Howard and David Tatman voted yes, but expressed concerns.
Collins was the most passionate. She objected to creating a new dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet program, saying its success will be at the expense of other more traditional school
“The remaining schools still ain’t going to get the help they need,” she said.
She said the district needs to evaluate what it has before adding new magnets.
"If I see any other dedicated magnet that comes up, the answer is, 'Hell no, hell no and hell no," Collins said.
Narcisse rejected that framing.
He said that new programs can attract new students to the parish and help keep existing families. He said "many, many families" in Baton Rouge who want more arts options, not less.
"The reality is we need more high-quality options,” Narcisse said.
Howard was dubious. Creating more dedicated magnets is insufficient to attract new students.
"We’ve tried that strategy before and we’ve seen where it’s landed us,” he said.
Provisionally called Baton Rouge School for the Arts or Baton Rouge Conservatory of the Arts, the new magnet would enroll grades six to 12 with about 455 to 490 students — smaller than the 625 students originally proposed. It would educate middle school age students the first year and then add high school grades a year later in fall 2024.
The conservatory, in particular, is aimed at retaining families who start in elementary arts programs but have fewer options as their children get older. There is no high school in Baton Rouge currently dedicated to the visual and performing arts.
Narcisse first proposed the idea in July, but set it aside temporarily after meeting initial board resistance.
Collins, Howard and Tatman all objected to the lack of cost estimates. Narcisse said he’s working on that. He also said that he’s exploring possible private funding to help the school
The school will offer music, dance, theater and the visual arts, and, a late addition, "film and media arts."
The new school would not have minimum admission standards as most other magnet programs in town do. But it would require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA to stay in the school.
Despite the concerns, the overall sentiment Thursday was favorable.
Board member Mark Bellue, who represents the Broadmoor area, said the new school is "a bold and exciting vision" and residents he's spoken with favor the idea. He said the proposal today is better than it was when first presented in July.
"We got more people on board, and I think it’s going to contribute to the success of the school," Bellue said.
Board member Connie Bernard said she's willing to take a chance.
“I’m not going to let good get in the way of great, or perfect,” Bernard said. “So I’m going to give this a try.”