Louisiana Key Academy

Teachers at the Louisiana Key Academy in Baton Rouge use large pens to help dyslexic children develop their motor skills during a lesson in 2014.

A Baton Rouge charter school that focuses on children with dyslexia won $250,000 after being named one of five finalists for a national award for bringing students back to class quickly during the pandemic.

Louisiana Key Academy is now up for a grand prize of $1 million as part of the STOP award, short for "Sustainable Transformational Outstanding Permissionless Education."

“This is a reflection of the team’s incredible effort,” LKA Principal Heather Bourgeois said.

Louisiana Key Academy, or LKA, opened in 2013 and now serves more than 400 children in grades one to eight. It was founded by Dr. Laura Cassidy, who still chairs the school’s board.

Cassidy — who’s married to U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge — said she was unsatisfied with available education options in the capital region after her youngest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Bourgeois said any money won from the national award will help LKA as it strives to open as many as seven schools across Louisiana.

Earlier this year, the St. Tammany Parish school district disqualified LKA’s application to start a charter school there after deeming its application “incomplete.” LKA has appealed to the state and expects a decision by Jan. 18.

She said the plan was not initially to create a network.

“We had hoped that people would see the model and the need and find a way to replicate it, but that’s not happening,” Bourgeois said.

LKA is competing against schools in Florida, Missouri, New York and Texas for the grand prize. Bourgeois said LKA is sending a delegation to New York City to attend the Forbes’ “30 Under 30” event Tuesday.

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Fifteen more schools were named semifinalists last month and have earned $100,000 apiece. One of those semifinalists was Living School, a charter in New Orleans.

The STOP award grew out of a partnership between the pro-choice Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform and Forbes. Janine Yass, a founder of a charter school in Philadelphia, has committed $3.5 million to finance the award.

Like schools throughout the country, Louisiana Key Academy closed its doors in spring 2020 when the pandemic first swept across the U.S., switching to remote instruction.

The school, however, returned to full in-person instruction in early July, starting its school year a month early, ahead of even other Louisiana schools that opted for in-person instruction at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Many schools at the time were still operating remotely or via hybrid learning.

What set LKA apart is the school formed a partnership with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health and Pennington Biomedical Research Center to test out best practices for keeping staff and students safe from COVID-19.

These practices included a program where all students and faculty took saliva tests twice a week to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Such testing in schools was a rarity at the time, but has grown more common. LKA is now participating in a federally funded weekly COVID testing program in effect at hundreds of schools across Louisiana.

The organizers of the STOP award commended LKA for moving “expeditiously and before anyone else in the state to deliver in-person instruction.”

Bourgeois said the school is already benefiting from seeking the award. She said she took part in a four-week “accelerator” program to help support her school and the other 19 semifinalists.

“We go to meet each other and really learn what people are doing out there and learn how to take our ideas to that next level,” she explained.

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