These are testing times for Park Elementary.
The small north Baton Rouge public elementary school narrowly averted closure on April 20 when Superintendent Warren Drake, in the face of public pressure, pulled the controversial item just minutes before it was to be voted on.
Park’s proposed closure was part of a larger Plan for Academic Innovation & Organizational Efficiency. Drake's decision to leave Park alone also forced the superintendent to delay plans for six other public schools in town. The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board ended up approving his drastically downscaled plan unanimously.
Acknowledging he opted too late to seek community input, East Baton Rouge Parish Superintend…
Park’s reprieve could prove short-lived. Every year, the school system reexamines its smaller schools like Park for potential closure or reconfiguring.
With his plan, Drake had hoped to better position the school system to reverse declines in student enrollment, improve its lowest performing schools, compete with an ever growing crop of charter schools, curry favor with restive residents of southeast Baton Rouge and close a longstanding budget deficit. And that’s not to mention settling on the scale of repairs for 10 schools and a handful of administrative centers that flooded last August.
Chastened by the criticism generated by his proposals, Drake said in an interview the delays may be a blessing in disguise. Given the flood, there’s been so much change, a year of relative stability is probably good, he said.
“It’s not all about efficiency, money-wise,” Drake said. “The most important thing is doing what’s best for the kids.”
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Five days after the reprieve, Park Elementary faced yet another challenge: Two weeks of standardized testing which concludes Friday. Fifth-graders, for the first time at Park, are taking their tests solely online.
A sign across the street on the marquee of Donaldson Chapel Baptist Church, a longtime school sponsor, says simply: “Pray for Students.”
Park had a C letter grade just four years ago, but it slipped to an F as its test scores cratered. Elementary school letter grades are based only test score results.
Under Principal Stephanie Tate, picked last summer by Drake, the elementary school is hoping to climb out of the academic cellar. If Park stays an F school for another year, it’s in danger of state takeover.
Friday was a lone non-testing day during an eight-day block of testing. To prepare, fifth-graders have spent the whole year using Chromebooks, part of a district initiative providing the laptops to every student in fifth through eighth grade.
Tate said she’s cautiously optimistic based on feedback she’s been hearing that students feel prepared.
“They say the tests the teachers prepared for them were much harder,” she said.
On Friday, some fifth-graders were practicing on their Chromebooks some more, but others were working on science projects for an upcoming science fair and others were creating “Beat The Leap” posters.
The school, at 2700 Fuqua St., is situated in a part of Baton Rouge known as Easy Town. Many prominent black leaders grew up in this part of town and many attended the elementary school. Tate said she frequently has former students, now grown up, who visit their old school and some volunteer regularly.
Donaldson Chapel Baptist Church is a source of some of those volunteers and help for Park. Pastor Tommie Gipson was one of the first to speak out to save the school. Echoing supporters of other struggling north Baton Rouge schools, Gipson said the school system is not doing enough to put programs into the school that would help Park attract more students.
“We’re in the age of competition and we’ve got to compete,” Gipson said.
Drake had proposed shuttering of Park’s 62-year-old campus and sending its students less than a mile away to Capitol Elementary School. Capitol Elementary, which was built in 2008 for $12 million, has a D letter grade. Merging the two schools would make a state takeover less likely.
Built for 660 students, Capitol Elementary was full when it it opened at 4141 Gus Young Ave. and Park Elementary at the time had about 440 students. Enrollment at both schools has declined since, to less than 300 students at Park and about 430 at Capitol. Almost every student at the two schools is considered economically disadvantaged, and, aside from a handful of Hispanic children, every student is black.
During the debate over closing Park, Drake was stung in particular by arguments that he was breaking trust with East Baton Rouge Parish voters. In 2008, voters set aside $21.7 million to rebuild Park Elementary when they renewed a 1-cent sales tax which funds most public school construction in Baton Rouge.
Drake had noted repeatedly that several schools built pursuant to the 1-cent sales tax plan are only partially full. He suggested it made little sense to stick with a decade-old plan to build yet another school that’s likely to be partially full as well when it opens.
Instead, the superintendent urged the board to direct the $21.7 million to other schools, including a $3.5 million addition to Capitol to house the added Park students.
Reflecting on the recent debate, Drake said he underestimated the bad feelings that could arise from abandoning Park Elementary.
“When we promise to do some things, we need to do some things,” Drake said.
Gipson and other supporters of Park were not shy about reminding Drake of that promise to voters.
Voters in East Baton Rouge Parish overwhelming supported on Saturday renewal of two school p…
At an April 19 community meeting that drew a number of local political leaders, Gipson noted there were two property tax renewals coming up on the ballot — both were renewed by wide margins on Saturday — and said voting to close Park and make changes at other schools prior to that election might jeopardize those renewals.
“Black folks vote, too,” Gipson said.
Gipson also has made it clear he expects the school system to go through with the $21.7 million rebuilding of Park Elementary. When voters approved it, construction was supposed to start in 2016. Now, it’s not set to start until March 2018. Principal Tate said she’s had no conversations with district staff about rebuilding the school.
A key problem during the debate, which Drake has acknowledged, is the failure of his staff and the School Board to solicit input from the affected communities until days before the final vote.
“I sort of was rushing it a bit because I knew we were on a time schedule,” Drake said last week.
The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday advanced plans to merge, expand or relo…
The School Board held two all-day retreats in early February and March where the future of Park and other schools were discussed. Early on, Drake indicated he planned to bring whatever was settled on “back to the community,” but when pressed, Drake would not offer specifics.
In recent interview, Drake said he originally wanted to wait until May to bring his plan to the School Board, which would have allowed more time to seek community input. But he said he was talked in moving more quickly.
“My staff said we’d needed time to implement this, and so I moved it up to April,” Drake said.