Nearly three years in the making, the Recovery School District in Baton Rouge is finally launching an extensive reboot, starting with five new charter schools opening their doors to children Monday.
It’s a modest start for an endeavor that state Superintendent of Education John White and others proclaimed would transform public education in much of north Baton Rouge, lifting children out of poverty and into productive adult lives.
“The prospect of creating great schools a mile north of our capital really sends a great message to the rest of the state,” White said in an interview Friday.
However, White cautioned that it’s just a start, one that will take years to work its magic. He also said that even with all the right ingredients in place — he says they are — there may be unforeseen stops and starts.
The new RSD schools are part of a wave of new charter schools opening in Baton Rouge, as well as in Baker and in Plaquemine, with the start of the 2014-15 school year. They increase the total of charter schools in metro Baton Rouge — public schools run via contracts with private entities — from 13 to 23, making the state capital second only to New Orleans in the prevalence of charter schools.
In response, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is opening new schools of its own. Two start up Monday, including a middle school with a focus on math and science, and a foreign language immersion school offering Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
RSD began taking over low-performing Baton Rouge public schools in 2008, assuming control of three that year and four more the next. The state agency quickly handed all seven to charter school organizations, only one of which had run a school before.
The schools were marked by frequent management changes, teacher turnover, student discipline problems and falloffs in enrollment. Though some made modest strides academically, all but one failed to meet state minimum academic standards.
White phased out the first version of RSD Baton Rouge starting in 2011 when he ran RSD across Louisiana and continuing into 2012 when he ascended to his current post. Six schools ended up surrendering their charters. Only Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School continued to operate.
White then placed these schools, along with Istrouma High, which was taken over in 2012, under the management of state employees. That lasted for two years while a search ensued for charter management organizations with stronger track records to serve as replacements.
White approached East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor about joining forces in the change of course, and the two met on the issue for months.
White proposed creating a joint “Baton Rouge Achievement Zone,” similar to the partnership that the RSD enjoys in New Orleans with the Orleans Parish School Board. The talks, however, collapsed in acrimony in spring 2013.
White forged ahead with the achievement zone plan without Taylor.
The plan’s backers have predicted that 20 schools with 12,000 students would be part of the achievement zone by 2017 — a prediction that assumed the state would continue to take over low-performing Baton Rouge public schools.
But aggressive moves by Taylor to protect the public schools and improved test scores in spring 2013, enough to lift a dozen schools out of F status, threw a big wrench in that calculation.
“We were able to bring some stability to those schools for the next three or four years, and I think that’s a great accomplishment,” Taylor said.
Taylor defended his decision not to go along with the charter-heavy RSD approach to school change, saying RSD schools have not proven successful so far and that there are more effective ways to improve public education.
“John White is still in charter-land,” Taylor said. “I think we upset the apple cart.”
Taylor argues that charters are a financial drain on traditional school districts — money that flows to charters can’t easily be cut from school budgets — and that they offer more of the same.
“How come none of these charter schools are teaching Mandarin Chinese?” Taylor asked.
White acknowledged East Baton Rouge Parish has made strides but noted that it still has thousands of children who read below grade level and has long struggled to educate them.
“We don’t have enough examples of schools that serve low-performing kids well, and we should all root for more,” White said.
The five new RSD schools opening this week are being run by three charter school groups.
Two groups, Celerity Educational Group and Friendship Schools, are new to Louisiana but well-known in their respective Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., bases.
One, Baton Rouge University Preparatory, is home-grown and launching its first school with just kindergartners on the mostly empty campus of closed Glen Oaks Middle.
While their growth plans call for educating many students in the future, all are starting small and occupying a modest amount of space.
Like Glen Oaks Middle, other schools have been closed by RSD.
Prescott Middle and Istrouma High were shuttered by RSD in May after decades in operation, leaving those campuses empty. In Istrouma’s case, there was a brief flurry of protests.
The campuses await new occupants, likely another handful of charter schools, only of which one, New York City-based Democracy Prep, has been announced.
The initial RSD schools are four elementary schools and one high school, Capitol High. The new Capitol High is being run by Friendship and is taking in students from Istrouma.
All the elementary schools are starting out smaller than they ultimately will be. Dalton and Lanier will add middle school grades a year at a time all the way to eighth grade. UP Elementary is starting with kindergartners and will stop growing when it reaches fifth grade.
Crestworth Middle is undergoing an unusual transformation.
It remains a middle school, but a kindergarten to second-grade school is starting up underneath. They eventually will form a kindergarten to eighth-grade elementary school similar to Dalton and Lanier.
Crestworth also is taking in some students from the closed Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools.
Dalton was until mid-July a property of another charter school group, Family Urban Schools of Excellence, based in Hartford, Connecticut. FUSE’s founder, Michael Sharpe, however, abruptly resigned in June under a cloud, prompting mass cancellations of its charter contracts, including Dalton’s.
Celerity agreed to added Dalton to its fold, keeping the principal FUSE had hired as well as much of the staff.
Lanier Elementary is the most straightforward school Celerity has assumed control of. The new management has brought in new approaches, including more focus on students doing projects, greater use of technology and an extended day program.
But they’ve also kept some familiar faces.
One is Alicia Franklin, who is starting her third year as principal at Lanier. On Friday, she greeted parents who came in to meet their teachers in advance of the start of school Monday. She was excited about one of the new features Celerity is introducing, an emphasis on chess, starting as early as kindergarten.
“You don’t find that anywhere,” Franklin said.
Her excitement grew a moment later as two boys, Sam, 8 and his younger brother, Josh, 5, walked in.
“Oh my God!” Franklin exclaimed, and quickly hugged them. “You’ve grown so big.”
The boys’ mother, Alicia Dukes, said so far she likes what she sees in Celerity but didn’t see it as much different than before. The chess program also intrigued her.
“(Sam) and Josh can play chess. And so can their father. I can’t play,” Alicia Dukes. “Maybe they can teach me.”
Lanier had almost 400 students last year, and the school estimates a similar number this year.
The mix, however, is much different. Last year, fourth grade, with almost 70 students, was the biggest. This year, kindergarten is the biggest. At an estimated 125 students, that’s more than double the size of last year’s class.
The approach is common at charter schools, which focus on young students more likely to accept the school’s approach to education and grow the school’s culture as well as minimize conflicts. The approach, however, leaves out older kids educated at other elementary schools.
Kenyarie Welsh, a Head Start teacher last year, is one of Lanier’s five kindergarten teachers. She spent most of the past three weeks training with other Celerity teachers in Sorrento at River Parishes Community College; Sorrento is closer than Baton Rouge to Celerity’s other Louisiana schools, a turnaround of Woodmere Elementary in Harvey.
Welsh said Celerity expects a lot from its kindergartners, including writing complete sentences, using proper punctuation, even learning the rudiments of typing.
“My goal is to be the No. 1 kindergarten teacher, the teacher the kids are going to remember for years,” Welsh said.