desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Plans to add about 1,100 new publicly-funded preschool slots for 3- and 4-year-olds in Baton Rouge are nearing reality.

Most of them will be at local child care centers that public school leaders consider “high quality.”

They range from 10 slots at tiny Rising Angels Daycare across the street from Capitol Middle School to nearly 200 slots with Kidz Karousel, a fast-growing company which runs six centers. Kidz Karousel is about to open two more, one in Rouzan and another on the Crestworth Elementary School campus.

The 3- and 4-year-olds would start their new classes during the 2021-22 school year, which begins in August. The centers generally receive $6,100 for every 3-year-old and $6,000 for every 4-year-old.

The new Crestworth center is one of two “microcenters” — child care facilities in public school buildings. The other microcenter will be operated by London Bridge Early Learning Center at Westminster Elementary.

Besides the centers, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system plans to send money to two charter schools, Impact Charter Academy and South Baton Rouge Charter Academy, as well as a parochial school, Redemptorist Elementary School.

Another 245 spots are being added within traditional public schools: 200 in person and 45 virtual pre-K spots at the recently revamped and expanded EBR Virtual Academy.

Using privately-run centers to offer preschool is a key part of East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Sito Narcisse’s larger goal to eventually make preschool universal in Baton Rouge. And it is a linchpin of his efforts to dramatically increase academic performance in public schools, particularly in literacy.

The parish school board is so far supportive of the goal.

On Thursday night, it voted 7-0 to advance plans to spend $6.3 million to hire players outside the traditional school system to offer early education. The item will return for a final vote at the board’s July 22 regular meeting.

The school district has been working with private centers for the past few years, helping them qualify for state and federal preschool grants. What’s new is the much-expanded scale of that funding as well as the school system injecting its own cash into such centers.

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In years past, the school district has kept its money in-house. Last year, it educated about 2,000 young children at its 80-plus schools, most of them through the state-run LA 4 program for 4-year-olds.

The expansion is drawing on federal pandemic aid approved by Congress in December and in March. The school system has been allocated about $60 million in coronavirus aid, about $48 million of which is going directly to educational initiatives. Another $144 million is to be allocated next year. About $8 million of that funding is heading to early childhood education.

The school system is also making use of $2 million from a separated, federally funded preschool expansion grant aimed at children 3 years old and younger. To qualify for that grant, child care providers, both private and public, have to rate at least “proficient” on the state’s early childhood accountability system launched in 2016.

Leigh Griffin, a project manager with the school system’s Early Childhood Program, told the board that the school system is setting an even higher bar, requiring that providers score 5 points out of 7 overall on the state’s rating scale, a half-point higher than the state requires.

After the meeting, Griffin said that there are two exceptions: centers with low ratings that showed improvement when district observers visited their classrooms and new centers that meet quality standards for personnel and curriculum.

In the first category is SEPT Scholarly Education of Precious Tots in Baker, which earned a relatively low “approaching basic” rating on its 2018-19 evaluation — the state partially waived evaluations for 2019-20 due to the pandemic — but has shown progress since, Griffin said.

Centers that qualify but don’t yet have ratings are Blue Bridge ASL Academy, Jerry’s Christian Academy and Robyn’s Nest Learning Center.

Board Vice President Dawn Collins, who abstained, said she’d prefer to expand public pre-kindergarten programs. She expressed concern that classes at the private centers are taught by individuals who lack bachelor’s degrees and teacher certifications, both of which are the norm in public pre-kindergartens.

“I don’t understand the benefit,” Collins said.

Griffin responded that the state now requires that teachers in centers participate in the state early childhood rating system have at least a special “ancillary” educational certificate, but acknowledged that it can be earned with less formal education than a teaching certification demands. But in evaluations, teachers at centers generally hold their own against public pre-K teachers, she said.

“There is no correlation between the degree and how well the teachers are performing,” Griffin said.

“They’re using the same exact tools as our EBR schools,” she added.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.