A Texas-based charter school group is readying to open its fourth school in Louisiana and third in Baton Rouge this fall on 15 acres of vacant land just south of the Baton Rouge Metro Airport.

The $17 million facility, which is under construction, will be known as IDEA University Prep. The name a nod to Baton Rouge University Prep, or UP Elementary, a school IDEA took over last summer. The newly constructed facility at 7701 Plank Road will absorb UP Elementary and continue on into the upper grades.

The new school is open for new students to register through Feb. 15. It’s one of three new charter schools opening in north Baton Rouge this fall.

Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts.

IDEA, which is headquartered in Weslaco, Texas, is already the biggest brick-and-mortar charter school operator in Baton Rouge. Its two schools here, IDEA Bridge and IDEA Innovation, which both opened in 2018, have about 1,800 students between them.

Like the new school, IDEA Bridge grew out of the takeover of an existing charter school, Baton Rouge Bridge Academy. That school, like UP Elementary, was founded by local educators who were part of the Boston-based charter incubation program, Building Excellent Schools.

UP Elementary is located next door to the new school site, operating for the past three years out of temporary facilities at 7802 Howell Boulevard. It had plans to build a 40,000 square-foot facility at that location, big enough to house 600 students, but the new facility never got off the ground.

UP, which opened in 2014 with just kindergartners, struggled as those children reached third and fourth grade and took the state’s LEAP tests. It earned an F letter grade for the 2018-19 school year — standardized testing was waived last school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ken Campbell, executive director of IDEA Public Schools Louisiana, complimented the work of UP Elementary and its staff, but said it’s hard to make it when you are running just one school.

“They needed to be part of a larger organization to do really well,” Campbell said.

UP Elementary’s 300-plus students will remain part of the new school. Its 50-plus fifth-graders can continue onto the new sixth grade, rather than having to transfer to another school for middle school. If they stay long enough, they can be part of IDEA University Prep’s Class of 2028 graduating class.

UP Elementary’s principal, Brytanni Blanchard, is staying on as principal for elementary grades at the new school. Meanwhile, Crystal Forte, a Houston educator who has worked at both of the other Baton Rouge IDEA schools, is coming on board as principal for the new middle school program, which will be called College Prep.

While the new 75,000 square-foot, two-story facility can house 1,000-plus students, IDEA University Prep is aiming for about 450 students next year, with more students enrolling over time, Campbell said.

Like the two other IDEA schools in town, the new one was designed by the Grace Hebert Curtis architectural firm of Baton Rouge. The general contractor is Buquet & LeBlanc of Baton Rouge.

Before it purchased the land along Plank, IDEA had been looking at a site two miles west of the former Banks Elementary for an estimated $2 million.

But the East Baton Rouge Parish school system was slow to move on the proposal, in part due to concerns that Scotlandville and nearby areas already have a number of schools in operation.

And more are coming. For instance, Helix Aviation Academy, a new charter school, is set to open this fall just north of the Metro Airport, just two miles away.

Campbell said IDEA finally ended up moving on.

“They never said no,” Campbell said. “It seemed like their process was slow, month after month.”

He said he’s happy with the decision to locate on Plank Road.

“In a lot of ways, it works better,” he said. “It’s better visibility."

IDEA’s charter with the parish school system allows it open a fourth campus in Baton Rouge, but Campbell said there are no current plans to do so.

“We’ve bitten off a lot already,” he said.

If and when the time comes for a fourth campus, Campbell said he’s inclined to do something “a little different and unique” than the normal IDEA school.


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