desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

A proposal to shrink the number of alternative schools for students with academic or disciplinary problems sparked heated debate Thursday from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

The plan was advanced without opposition to board’s regular meeting on Feb. 21 but not before several members expressed concerns about not just the plan but the school system’s approach to alternative education in general.

Board member Dadrius Lanus suggested paying teachers at alternative schools more, perhaps with help from outside groups, because these teachers have the most-challenging students. 

“We have to give teachers a reason to want to be working in these schools,” he said.

Board member Dawn Collins suggested going “beyond just monetary (incentives) to get people on those campuses.”

Board member Tramelle Howard said the plan presented Thursday could use more input from working educators at alternative schools.

The proposal, Collins said, “sounds like it was really more data-driven than people-driven.”

“You all are preaching to the choir,” responded Superintendent Warren Drake. “We want these kids in better schools with better teachers. But we also have a budget issue.”

The school system is trying to trim its spending by at least $30 million in advance of the 2019-20 school year. School officials did not offer an estimate of the likely savings from the proposed changes.

The plan would merge five of the alternative schools into three. All five of those schools, which collectively serve almost 600 students, currently have F academic grades from the state.

The merger, if approved, would take effect in August with the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Drake said the school accountability system in Louisiana does an injustice to alternative schools. In a discussion about one of the schools in Baton Rouge, Arlington Preparatory Academy, Drake had glowing words.

“It is an absolute blessing to go over and visit with them and see what they do at that school,” he said.

In response to such criticism, the state recently created a new accountability system just for alternative schools. The school system has until March 1 to submit an application as part of that new system and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to vote on its application in April.

The proposed changes come with short-term costs.

Arlington Preparatory Academy would abandon its longtime home southeast of LSU at 931 Dean Lee Drive and would relocate to the former campus of Howell Elementary School, seven miles north at 6125 Winbourne Ave.

To get the Howell Park facility in shape, the school system is looking to spend $600,000. The bulk of that money is to make the facility compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act; high schools that receive federal money have to be ADA compliant. The school previously received about $1.4 million in renovations in 2010, plus another $500,000 to repair damage from the August 2016 floods.

Board member Mike Gaudet, who represents the area around Arlington, said parents are split about the move.

“Some of the parents particularly who live close to Arlington were not very happy with it, but when we looked at the bulk of the children who go there, they actually live closer to Howell Park,” Gaudet said.

Of the 76 students who attend the school, 43 live north of Florida Boulevard, many of them not far from Howell Park.

Collins, whose district includes Howell Park, was not happy. “Now my district with all the D and F schools has to absorb more pain,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind doing that if I wasn’t already heavily burdened.”

Drake said moving to Howell Park would put Arlington students in a much better place to get an education: “Yes, they have been neglected and this is part of an effort to deal with that neglect.”

Arlington Preparatory Academy was already slated to move. As part of a 1-cent sales tax plan that voters renewed in April, the Arlington property is one of several possible locations for a new school in south Baton Rouge, an area scarce in public schools compared with the rest of the parish.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.