A charter school in south Baton Rouge with a D letter grade earned a reprieve Thursday after the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board grudgingly renewed its charter for at least three more years.
After a lengthy discussion, the board voted 5-4 to renew South Baton Charter Academy for three more years. The motion calls for a new contract to be finalized by Jan. 31 but with additional, unspecified performance measures agreed upon between the two parties.
Board member Dadrius Lanus, who took office earlier this month, said it would be hypocritical to deny South Baton Rouge Charter Academy while the board approved Inspire Charter Academy a year ago under similar circumstances.
“Why would we approve Inspire charter when they dropped several times, and we are going to hold another school to another standard?” Lanus asked.
Lanus said the school system should finally adopt a “compact” for charter schools with standards for charter schools that mirrors those used by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Here’s how the vote broke down:
FOR RENEWAL: Mark Bellue, Dawn Collins, Tramelle Howard, Lanus and Evelyn Ware-Jackson
AGAINST RENEWAL: Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Mike Gaudet and David Tatman.
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The charter school, 9211 Parkway Drive, opened in August 2014. It is run by the for-profit Charter Schools USA, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The organization operates eight charter schools in Louisiana; it used to have nine before Baton Rouge Mid-City Charter was closed in 2018. South Baton Rouge Charter and Iberville Charter academies are two schools that it has left in the Baton Rouge region.
Lonnie Luce, state director of Charter Schools USA, highlighted the school’s overall academic growth over the past few years.
“We have moved the kids every single year,” said Luce.
However, Andrea O'Konski, chief of accountability, assessment and evaluation, said a team of evaluators she led had concerns about the performance of the charter school compared with other, higher-performing public schools nearby.
“It’s the lowest of the surrounding schools in that proximity zone,” O’Konski said.
O’Konski also faulted the school’s improvement plans for a lack of detail, especially in how it will improve the performance of subgroups of students who’ve been falling behind.
Charter schools are public schools run privately via a charter, or contract. The school system has 10 schools it has issued charters to.
State law specifies that after the initial five years in operation, a charter school can have its charter renewed for a period of between three to 10 years. South Baton Rouge Charter, which opened in 2014, is in its fifth year of operation.
Dyason said state law should change to allow shorter renewals of just a year or two.
“Three years is a long time, and you can lose a lot of children,” Dyason said.
Collins said the board needs to adopt a clearer policy for when it will renew a charter school and when it won’t.
“Because we did not do our part, I cannot vote to close it,” Collins said.
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Superintendent Warren Drake defended the district’s evaluation process of South Baton Rouge Charter. Drake didn’t initially offer a recommendation on the charter school’s future, but when pressed, he said he would deny its request for a renewal.
“The school was evaluated fairly and was evaluated in depth,” Drake said. “What we didn’t have was a school performance score target, which we will have in the future.”
Drake, however, said he is heartened by the charter school’s growth and by the arrival of Luce, a former superintendent in St. James Parish schools, and Yolanda Burnette-Lankford, who took over as principal in July from Monique Smith, who led the school for four years.
Burnette-Lankford said she grew up near where the school is located.
“I still live in this community, and I want to make a difference in the community I grew up in,” she said.
Gaudet defended the district’s evaluation process, saying it was much improved since the board voted to renew Inspire in spring 2018.
He said it got tougher in part because of his complaints about the weakness of the evaluating tool used to judge Inspire. He urged board members to keep in mind a key question.
“At the end of the day, are the children in the seats best served at (South Baton Rouge Charter) or would they be best served at some of our schools?” Gaudet asked.
Jesus Antonio Garcia had an answer. Garcia, 13 and in eighth grade, said he transferred to the charter school in 2014 from a public school in Baton Rouge where he was being bullied and it’s been far better.
“They made me feel comfortable; they gave me hope, like I could do something,” Garcia said.
Jasmine Stovall, a teacher at the charter school, said students are making strides.
“You say you are here meeting in the best interest of our children. They’re here, and they are begging you not to close us down,” Stovall said.
Board watcher James Finney was unmoved. He said every time a charter school is up for renewal, parents and students make similar emotional appeals.
“I just wonder how bad a school must be before you would ever vote to close it down,” Finney said.
Editor's note: This article was changed on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, to note that Mark Bellue voted in favor of renewing the school's charter and David Tatman voted against.