The state-run Recovery School District in Baton Rouge is undergoing a round of changes, as contracts with two charter school management groups are discontinued, two are renewed and a school is added to another group's network.
These are changes that the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took up in meetings last month and again this week.
Despite impassioned pleas from parents, Louisiana's top school board voted Tuesday to close an F-rated charter school in Hammond.
Despite all the changes, RSD schools that are operating now would continue, but under different management, said Dana Peterson, an assistant superintendent with state Department of Education.
Peterson describes these changes as a “third phase” for this 11-year-old educational experiment and the prelude to a fourth and final phase: a reunification with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
The Recovery School District, or RSD, was created by voters in 2003 to take over low-performing public schools for a short period of time, improve them and then return them to local control.
That has already occurred with the dozens of public schools in New Orleans taken over in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. A 2016 state law called for RSD's charter schools to return to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board, a process completed in July. But unlike prior to Katrina, all the public schools now are charter schools or in the process of becoming charter schools.
A school reunification in the Capital City would require the cooperation of school board headquarters at 1050 South Foster Drive. The parish school system, unlike New Orleans, has been much slow to embrace charter schools, with school officials often viewing that as unwanted and unneeded competition. Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts.
Peterson admitted that reunification won’t happen right away, though he said he brings it up with Drake and other district leaders whenever he sees them.
“We’re hopeful that the board, which has some new members, will do so in the near future, that they are prepared to work on that,” Peterson said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake said the eight schools RSD seized between 2008 and 2012 are old buildings and most are in need of substantial upgrades. Drake said bringing those schools back would require some time.
“My vision would be for this would that this would take place over a period of years, maybe five years, so that it doesn’t tax any one group too much,” Drake said.
Drake said he has a more immediate request of the RSD: To return Crestworth Middle School to local control.
Since it was taken over in 2009, middle school age students in the Scotlandville area who want to attend a neighborhood school have had to travel a long way to go to school. Currently those students go to Park Forest Middle School, which is 11 miles away by car.
The school system is planning, starting in 2020, to spend $4 million to add middle school grades to Progress Elementary, but Drake would prefer to use that money to help fix up Crestworth Middle, which is already set up for middle school kids.
“Certainly that’s my top priority is to get that facility back,” Drake said. “It brings back a feeder pattern for Scotlandville High School.”
The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last month approved some of the proposed changes for RSD Baton Rouge, renewing contracts for four RSD schools. Three are run by Celerity Schools Louisiana and the fourth, Democracy Prep, earned a one-year extension.
BESE’s School Innovation and Turnaround Committee on Tuesday endorsed without opposition three department recommendations:
- Not renew the charter of Friendship Louisiana Inc., but rehire the Washington, D.C.-based charter group for one more year under a special management contract to run Capitol High School until the state settles on someone to replace them. Capitol currently has a state-issued academic letter grade of an F, down from a D previously.
- Not renew the charter for Baton Rouge College Prep, which currently occupies the former Glen Oaks Middle Campus, and instead give Celerity a five-year charter to run the middle school starting this fall, making it Celerity's fourth Baton Rouge school. Baton Rouge College Prep also has an F letter grade, down from a C previously.
- Renew for three years the charter for Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School. Kenilworth currently has a D letter grade. This is the second time Kenilworth has been renewed since it opened in 2009. In 2013, when it had a C, its charter was renewed for five years.
BESE meets again Wednesday for its monthly meeting and is expected to ratify the committee's decisions.
Friendship took over Capitol High in 2014 and Baton Rouge College Prep launched its middle school in 2015. Capitol High, located at 1000 N. 23rd St., currently has 368 students in grades nine to 12. Baton Rouge College Prep, located at 5300 Monarch Ave., has 226 students in grades six to eight.
Justin Blanchard, executive director of Capitol High, said the high school has made a lot of progress and expanded opportunities for its students.
“We are really proud of the work we’ve done,” Blanchard said. “We compare favorably to all of the schools that our students would be zoned for.”
“And we’ve done this in a facility that in its current state presents significant challenges,” he added, noting that Friendship recently spent half million dollars to obtain a certificate of occupancy before it could reopen after making repairs due to a fire that occurred on campus.
The state, alumni of Capitol High and East Baton Rouge school officials have been holding meetings for months about what is next for Capitol High.
Kathryn Rice, founder of Baton Rouge College Prep, connected the decline in her school's performance to the shift away from paper to computer-based standardized testing in 2017 was difficult, saying that student struggled more with the computer tests. She said the school made some growth this past year, but was still one point short of avoiding an F grade.
But Rice said she’s been buoyed by the conversations with Celerity Schools, which she said has come a long way in adapting and improving the educational model that worked for them in California but had to be adjusted for Louisiana.
“We anticipate a pretty seamless transition and an actually improved school at Glen Oaks Middle with a lot of familiar faces,” Rice said.
Kenilworth's renewal sparked some BESE discussion. Schools like Kenilworth that are seeking a third charter need a C grade to earn an automatic renewal, but Kenilworth was one point short of a C. As part of its renewal, Kenilworth has to submit an improvement plan.
Lauren Fisher Allen, director of community relations and a former teacher at the school, said the school knows three more years is not a long time.
"This won't be an easy three years," she said. "We don’t want to be a C. We want to be a B or an A."
State Superintendent John White said Kenilworth has made progress and is doing better than its peer schools.
"We do believe that many students would go to lower performing schools if the school closed," White said.
Mike Gaudet, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, questioned that.
"Glasgow Middle has a C and it has room," Gaudet said.
White responded by saying that the bulk of Kenilworth's students live not in south Baton Rouge where Kenilworth is located but in ZIP codes in north Baton Rouge served by lower performing schools.
"(Kenilworth) is one of the highest performing schools in these ZIP codes," White said. "I don’t say that happily."