East Baton Rouge School Board considering Success For All program for F-rated schools, adding magnet programs, and air-conditioning all school buses _lowres

Advocate file photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Claiborne Elementary School

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is working toward signing a $527,000, three-year contract with Baltimore-based Success For All to improve reading and literacy at four F-rated north Baton Rouge elementary schools, part of a $1.27 million federally funded grant to turn around low-performing schools.

The School Board gave unanimous preliminary approval to the grant Thursday and is expected to give final approval when it meets Nov. 19.

The four schools are Claiborne, Howell Park, Merrydale and Park Forest elementary schools. The state Department of Education awarded the $1.27 million to the four schools last month, part of $10 million worth of federally funded school improvement grants it awarded to 24 districts throughout the state.

The school system had asked for more money in hopes of focusing on every grade, as well as obtaining help with writing instruction. But the state awarded less than sought, so now the Success For All contract will cover only grades kindergarten to three and only reading.

“This is a tight budget,” said Pat Friedrich, district grant writer. “We’d like to do a lot more. But we feel like we can really move those students up.”

The grant runs out in summer 2018. No schools in Baton Rouge use Success For All, though a few have in years past.

The not-for-profit Success For All launched in Baltimore in 1987 and is used in more than 40 states as well as in Canada and the United Kingdom.

The highly structured curriculum is one of four “evidence-based, whole-school reform models” the U.S. Department of Education gave as an option for school districts seeking to turn around an existing school as opposed to replacing school leadership and staff or closing the school and reopening it as something completely different.

Besides training in reading instruction and instructional materials, the contract with Success For All calls for access to online tests as well as leadership training and a reading-based character education program.

Also Thursday, the School Board gave the green light to applying again for a Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant that would finance the launch of magnet programs at three schools that don’t have such programs: Howell Park Elementary, Broadmoor Middle and Istrouma High.

Istrouma High’s would-be magnet program is contingent upon the state finalizing plans to return the historic north Baton Rouge high school, closed in 2014, to the parish school system. If Istrouma is not returned to local control, the plan is to place the magnet program at Broadmoor High School instead.

In 2013, the school system applied for a $4 million federal grant to fund magnet programs at four schools; Broadmoor Middle also was on that list. The U.S. Department of Education rejected that proposal and spent nearly $90 million elsewhere.

The School Board on Thursday also gave preliminary approval to let Gary Reese, chief of student support services, research the full cost of retrofitting the school system’s bus fleet with air conditioning. Superintendent Warren Drake already has made clear he wants to move toward putting air conditioning on all student buses, not just those that cater to special-education students where it’s required by law.

Reese’s initial estimate is $11,000 per bus to retrofit. With more than 400 buses lacking air conditioning, that could easily cost north of $4 million. Reese, however, said he wants to get a full picture of the costs, including ongoing maintenance costs. He said he hopes to return to the board early in 2016 with better estimates.