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Marcus Williams, Program Director for CSRS | Tillage Program Management, talks about a corner classroom at Jefferson Terrace Academy, the new K-8 school replacing nearby Jefferson Terrace Elementary Tuesday August 4, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.The school is substantially complete, with a few items left to complete. But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, rather than a celebratory opening for this modern, 21st century tech-rich school, there will be very little fanfare initially. That's because students won't be arriving until after Labor Day, thanks to the coronavirus. Teachers will be teaching them remotely in meantime. (Photo by Bill Feig, The Advocate)

By the end of the 2021-22 academic year, East Baton Rouge Parish's public school children will have attended classes for several more days than usual.

The plan isn't what the district's superintendent initially envisioned, but it's way more palatable than a July-to-May calendar that would have cut deeply into this year's summer vacation.

Board members voted 7-2 Thursday to approve the 2021-22 calendar, with students returning to classes Aug. 11, rather than July 28. The new schedule adds in lots of extra instructional minutes — school officials say they amount to about nine more days overall. The extra time is meant to help students make up for time lost during the coronavirus pandemic. Districts nationwide shuttered their classrooms last spring; East Baton Rouge classes have been a mix of online and in-person learning in 2020-21.

Teachers now have additional time built into their calendars as well. They will spend seven, not just five, days in training before students arrive. But instead of starting on July 19, they don't have to come back from summer until Aug. 2.

Full-time school employees who finish the current semester on May 21 will receive a $1,300 stipend in their June 8 paychecks — as long as they took no more than 20 days off during the current school year. Superintendent Sito Narcisse backed the stipend, but originally wanted it paid in August, which would have resulted in employees retiring or leaving the district after this year missing out on the payment.

East Baton Rouge schools will lose parent-teacher conference days in 2021-22, a move that helped prompt board members Connie Bernard and Dawn Collins to oppose the new calendar. While state law mandates two conferences a year, Associate Superintendent Adam Smith said only certain students need them.

"I believe policy only requires a mandatory conference with students who are in jeopardy of failing," he said.

Here are some key features of the new calendar:

  • Four additional days will be accounted for by converting eight half-days to full days: Sept. 15, Dec. 15-17, Feb. 16 and May 17-19. 
  • Students will also have a shorter fall break, Friday to Monday, Oct. 8-11, rather than having Tuesday, Oct. 12, off as well.
  • The original Easter break had included six days off between Good Friday, April 15, to April 24. It now will have five school days off from the Tuesday after Palm Sunday through the Monday after Easter; April 12 through April 18.
  • The school year will end a day later than originally planned, May 20 for students and May 23 for teachers.

Narcisse's initial Smart Start plan, which would have shrunk summer break by about two weeks, sparked unusually fierce and passionate opposition when it was announced publicly March 31. Many teachers, parents and students said they needed a longer break because of the rough year they suffered because of changes adopted amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The superintendent countered that many students had fallen behind their peers during the pandemic and the extra days would help catch them up. Teachers and parents, however, were not swayed, jamming public hearings and school board meetings to criticize the idea. The East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators staged a "sickout" April 12 that nearly forced several schools to close.

By the end of last week, Narcisse sent an email to school employees saying he would reconsider. By Monday, he retreated.

He put forth four proposed calendars, including the one adopted Thursday. 

"It is my belief that this will better meet the needs of the community while still providing important additional classroom time and professional development," Narcisse wrote in a memo to the board.

Board member Dadrius Lanus said the many meetings and debates, while hard at times, resulted in a better calendar.

"(I'm) thanking you, superintendent, for hearing our community, (and) thanking the board for hearing our community," Lanus said, "and my hope is we can continue doing that going forward."

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Board member Jill Dyason offered an apology.

"I felt very badly that we are in the middle of a very difficult time and we made that more difficult for you than we had to," she said. "But we did step back."

Unlike the board meeting a week ago, when opponents packed the room in a hearing that lasted almost nine hours, Thursday's was much more cordial — though there was still scattered criticism.

Storm Matthews, who helped organize the April 12 "sickout,” said the calendar is better, but criticized Narcisse for focusing too narrowly on finding eight more instructional days somewhere rather than on the things that are really holding kids back.

"You got your eight days," Matthews said. "I hope your ego is satisfied."

Parent Jennifer Harding also had mixed feelings, saying she liked the new outlets for public involvement, but said the Smart Start plan is way too vague.

"I still think we're suffering from a lack of information and detail," she said.

That will change soon.

School officials say they will complete a formal application for Smart Start funding — federal COVID relief money — next week and will have a budget for the board to consider when it meets on May 7.

The cost of the revised calendar went down from $20 million to about $5 million by no longer starting the school year early. That will free up money for other purposes.

One idea is to increase the $25 per student that the school system gives classroom teachers to pay for supplies, or "materials of instruction." Narcisse said the idea is to allow teachers to spend less money out of their own pocket.

Teachers will get money directly in their pockets on June 8, right after this school year ends. Employees who worked the most will get the full $1,300. Employees who worked the least will get half that.

School officials sweetened the pot in recent days by creating a $1,000 stipend that will go to employees who took between 20 and 90 days of leave, as well as for part-time employee and substitutes who worked 120 days or more. And the early payout date means employees who retire at the end of the current school year won't be left out.

Board President David Tatman was pleased: "It looks to me to be a fair allotment and I'm particularly thrilled we're going to get it out this year."

Valencea Johnson, president of the parish Association of Educators, suggested using the savings from ditching the early start date to increase the approved $1,300 stipend.

"I heard the board members talk about how hard the teachers worked," Johnson said. "Let's show them that we really appreciate them."


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