In his latest bid to attract new students, Superintendent Sito Narcisse is proposing to convert two Baton Rouge elementary campuses into health care and environmental education programs backed, respectively, by Baton Rouge General Medical Center and LSU.
The School Board on Thursday gave preliminary approval to both proposals, which would transform Park Elementary as well as the former Polk Elementary. A final vote is set for Jan. 20.
Park Elementary would shift from a traditional elementary school, stopping at fifth grade, and add a middle school. It would be redubbed, Park Elementary Medical Academy.
The former Polk Elementary would become a sixth-through-12th-grade school. It would be renamed the Eva Legarde Research Center for Coastal Studies and Environmental Studies. The former Polk campus was renamed in honor of Legarde, a former School Board member. The proposed new school would be the first Baton Rouge public school named after an African American.
James K. Polk step aside. Eva Legard is taking over.
Both programs would start in August. Park would add a sixth-grade class and the Eva Legarde school would start with just a sixth grade. Both would expand over time, with Park finishing with an eighth grade in 2024 and Eva Legarde reaching 12th grade by 2028.
The vote Thursday for both items was a unanimous 8-0. Only board member Dawn Collins was absent, due to a family emergency.
Since arriving in Baton Rouge, Narcisse has pressed for new programs to add “high quality seats” for a school system that has steadily lost students over time to private schools, charter schools and suburban public schools.
In that vein, he persuaded the School Board in November to approve a new arts-focused “conservatory” middle-high school at Broadmoor Middle.
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Unlike the conservatory school, the two new proposed schools are not magnet schools. Instead, Narcisse is calling them “Focus Choice” schools. Unlike most magnet schools, Focus Choice schools don’t have academic entrance requirements for all incoming students such as a minimum GPA or test score. Also, these schools work “hand in hand” with outside partners in job fields to help students prepare for careers in those fields.
“This is a dream coming true before our very eyes,” Edgardo Tenreiro, chief executive officer for Baton Rouge General, told the board.
Tenreiro said Baton Rouge General has a school of nursing that the Park Elementary program could feed into, noting there’s a shortage of nurses right now.
Narcisse said he’s trying to identify a high school that Park would feed into to continue the program and plans to bring a proposal on that back to the board in February.
Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs, said that shift at Park would keep the 270 students currently at that school to stay, but they would need to maintain a 2.8 GPA in the future to remain Park students. Students who opt out would transfer to neighboring elementary schools. Meanwhile, enrollment at the new Park would be open to students across the school system, though those living within two miles of the campus at 2680 Bogan Walk would be given priority in the admissions process.
Park Elementary is a neighborhood elementary that has had an F letter grade from the state for several years. It’s potentially in danger of state takeover, though, the state for the past two years have waived letter grades due to the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new Eva Legarde Research Center would be developed through a partnership with LSU and The Water Institute, a consortium that conducts research on coastal issues in Louisiana and other Gulf states.
It would have about 50 students in grades six to 12, or about 350 overall. While there would be open admissions in the early grades, eighth-graders would need a minimum 3.0 GPA to continue on into high school. In return, graduates of the school would gain automatic admission to LSU.
Narcisse said a special steering committee that has helped develop the Eva Legarde school asked for a minimum GPA for high school students.
“There’s an expectation for the type of work that needs to happen to be effective in those areas,” Narcisse said.
Christopher D’Elia, dean of LSU’s college of coast and the environment, said the college has successfully partnered for years with science-minded students at Scotlandville High and he sees the new Eva Legarde school as an opportunity to expand on that.
“I’m looking for more of the same and better, and I just can’t tell you how excited we are about this opportunity,” D’Elia said.
The former Polk Elementary, at 408 E. Polk St. and just north of LSU, was a neighborhood school for years but was closed a few years ago due to dwindling enrollment. It was renovated in 2014.
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In other action, the School Board voted 7-1 to finish by March 17 its work in developing new election district maps for itself. Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson was the only No vote, urging a different timeline that would have ended on April 21.
The redistricting is necessitated by the 2020 U.S. Census. The School Board has a deadline of June 20 to submit maps to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office. That’s the latest to be in time for Nov. 8 School Board elections. Qualifying is July 20-22.
Supporters of the March 17 timeline said it would allow people interested in running for School Board more time to figure out which districts they live in and launch their campaigns, and if the board needs more time it can always delay a vote.
Opponents complained that’s not enough time to keep the public informed, especially if, as some advocates seek, the School Board considers reversing a controversial 2014 decision to reduce the size of the board from 11 to its current nine members.