The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday voted unanimously to extend the lives of three charter schools in Baton Rouge, two of which have struggled academically.
The board, however, has yet to look at a fourth charter school, Career Academy. This career-focused high school has earned a solid F grade throughout its existence. It is not seeking a charter renewal as yet, but rather is trying to persuade school leaders to let it stay open for another year to prove it has turned a corner.
The votes Thursday were all 8-0, with board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith abstaining. After the meeting, Nelson-Smith explained that she had not had a chance to visit the three schools yet.
Charter schools are public schools run by private groups via charters, or contracts. The schools at issue are Type 1 charter schools, in which the contract was issued by a local school district, in this case the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Inspire Charter Academy and Mentorship Academy were the most in danger of being closed in May when their initial five-year contracts were coming to an end. State law required the board to act on their extension requests by Jan. 31. Thursday was the only scheduled board meeting in January.
Inspire and Mentorship will likely keep operating through 2018. The terms of their extended contracts, however, are still being negotiated.
Both schools have been F schools at different points in their tenure but have shown some improvement over the past two years.
Inspire, a D-rated school that declined by almost 5 points last year, generated the most debate Thursday. Superintendent Bernard Taylor said it was “not an easy recommendation to make,” but he said Inspire leaders have been open with their failings and have pledged to work with his office to improve.
Taylor also said that the traditional public schools near Inspire have made improvements that would be jeopardized by an influx of new students displaced by closing Inspire.
Taylor, however, promised that the contract struck with Inspire will include tough performance goals in line with goals for traditional schools — goals that if not met might prompt early closure.
“I encourage you to hold them to the same standard that we would hold any school to,” Taylor told the board.
THRIVE Charter School, a small inner-city boarding school that opened in 2012 at 1120 Government St., generated the least debate. The board voted quickly to allow the school to finish out its five-year contract, which ends in 2017. THRIVE is on track to be renewed for 10 years more after that if it stays out of trouble
It’s a B-rated school that has shown steady academic growth during its almost three years of operation. It has 80 students in grades six to eight. Starting next year, it will add high school grades, one grade at a time.
Taylor noted that as a public boarding school, THRIVE is unique.
Inspire opened in 2010 in a newly constructed building at 5454 N. Foster Drive. It is operated by the for-profit, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, which operates several other schools in Louisiana, including the new Advantage Charter Academy in Baker.
The school, which has undergone several leadership changes, has about 670 students in grades kindergarten to eight, short of its original enrollment target of 750-plus students.
Board watcher James Finney said Inspire is paying exorbitant lease payments back to its home office.
“This school writes a $1 million check every year to Grand Rapids,” he said.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said children should be saved from Inspire, not allowed to remain in “prison” there.
“Rather than throwing them a line to save them, we’re going to throw them a brick to sink them,” Washington said.
Several parents and teachers, however, spoke passionately in favor of the school
“I pulled my son out of an EBR school where he had to fight every day because he was smart,” Andrea Barton-Brown said.
After three years at Inspire, her son, now an eighth-grader, is on the honor roll and doing well, she said.
“I want other kids to have what my child got,” she said.
The debate over renewing Mentorship Academy was subdued, by contrast. That’s surprising since Mentorship on paper is further behind Inspire academically. The school system’s review team, however, gave it a 3.3, on a 4-point scale, compared with a 2.71 for Inspire.
Mentorship opened in 2010 in an old bank building in downtown Baton Rouge with the backing of LSU and support from a grant from BP but has failed so far to live up to its potential.
The academy, which is two schools in one, has had academic problems and has an enrollment that’s about half the 1,200 students originally envisioned. Next year, the two schools will effectively merge and will have enrollment capped at roughly 600 students; the science school will close, and the students there will be able to transfer to the digital arts school.
After the meeting, Taylor said he plans to urge Mentorship to address several issues in the contract extension talks, including a need for more Advanced Placement courses.