Years after it first won the right to set up shop in Baton Rouge, New Orleans-based Collegiate Academies is finally about to open the doors of its first high school in the state capital.
It is the first of what could be many charter schools with roots in the Crescent City, all seeking to recreate their formula upriver.
Charter schools are public schools run by private groups via charters, or contracts. In New Orleans, charter schools monopolize public education, and they are a growing part of the educational mix in Baton Rouge as well.
Collegiate Baton Rouge, the fourth high school in the Collegiate Academies network, will be the 24th charter school in the city of Baton Rouge.
There are also two in Baker, one in Plaquemine and one in Slaughter.
And it will be the first such school run by a New Orleans-based organization. Until now, charter schools in Baton Rouge have been either locally operated or run by out-of-state charter management groups.
Collegiate received a charter to start a school in Baton Rouge in 2013, but held off exercising it because it required the school to be located in one of a small number of state-managed school buildings. In 2016, it opted instead to pursue a different kind of charter that would give it more freedom to locate wherever it wanted. In January, it was approved. Collegiate is now seeking approval to start yet another high school in Baton Rouge that would open in 2018.
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Meanwhile, another well-known New Orleans charter school group, Inspire NOLA, has been approved to open as many as four schools in Baton Rouge, starting in 2018.
Collegiate Baton Rouge is expecting to have as many as 170 ninth-graders show up on Aug. 7, its first day of school.
Johnkedrion Graves is one of them. A lover of medical TV shows, the earnest 13-year-old dreams of becoming an emergency room doctor.
“I want to help save people’s lives,” Johnkedrion said.
As its name suggests, Collegiate Academies’ mission is to get its students to and through college.
“Our big focus is making sure that every child gets what he or she needs to be on the path to college success,” said Kelsey Lambrecht, founding principal of Collegiate Baton Rouge. “And we know that’s not the same from one kid to the next.”
In that vein, incoming ninth-graders like Graves are being assigned a faculty adviser who will follow them through to graduation day. The first graduating class won’t be until spring 2021.
The emphasis on college readiness appealed strongly to Mark Wallace. He recalled feeling unprepared when he went to college and wants something better for his son, Jayden. So when Wallace met Lambrecht at his 13-year-old’s eighth-grade graduation from South Baton Rouge Charter Academy, he was quickly sold.
“The track record of the other (Collegiate) schools in New Orleans was pretty impressive,” Wallace said.
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Part of the Collegiate Academies’ pitch is that 98 percent of its seniors are accepted into college, though not all end up going.
At Sci Academy, Collegiate’s oldest and best known New Orleans school, 80 percent of the Class of 2015 ended up enrolling in college, according to the latest state figures. That rate is still well above state and national averages.
G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy, which joined the network in 2012, has yet to report its college enrollment rate. Collegiate's third school, Livingston Collegiate Academy, just completed its first year, with just a ninth grade.
Students still have to reach their high school graduation day. At Sci Academy, 68.8 percent graduated on time after four years in 2016, down from the 73 percent graduation rate the year before. The graduation rate at Carver is 62.2 percent in 2016.
Those rates are below the averages for the state and Orleans Parish, 77 and 72.1 percent, respectively, but at least in the case of Sci Academy, above the 67.8 percent graduation rate for East Baton Rouge Parish public schools.
Collegiate Baton Rouge is so new it doesn’t yet have a permanent home. Lambrecht, a native of Nebraska and an eight-year veteran of Collegiate schools, said she’s spent the past two years operating the school out of her house and the trunk of her car.
On July 1, she was finally able to move to Collegiate Baton Rouge’s temporary home, sharing space with GEO Prep Mid City, an unaffiliated charter school, at 1900 Lobdell Blvd. Teachers reported July 10 for training. Workers are installing a large temporary building full of classrooms in GEO Prep’s back parking lot for Collegiate.
Several blocks south on Lobdell, across from the Bon Carre Technology Center, the school plans to break ground in August on a permanent facility that would open in fall 2018. New Schools for Baton Rouge, a nonprofit group which helped recruit Collegiate to Baton Rouge, is helping with the construction of the new school through its facilities arm, NSBR Facilities.
Being part of something brand new is a key draw for Collegiate.
“It gives me a chance to start over,” Johnkedrion said.
Wallace has similar sentiments.
“Sometimes it’s good to be the first person to jump on the ground floor and see how things go,” Wallace said.
Like Johnkedrion, Kaylen Brown, 13, is also looking for a new start after spending seven years at Inspire Charter Academy in Baton Rouge.
She enjoys conducting experiments around the house and is thinking about becoming a chemical or a civil engineer. But Kaylen struggles in math — her mother, Tomeka Roberston, describes math as her daughter’s “downfall.” Kaylen said she has tended to live up, or live down in some cases, based on the expectations of her teachers.
“Some teachers try to push you to do it, to encourage you, and some teachers they’ll joke around and make you feel like you can’t do it,” she said.
Lambrecht said Collegiate welcomes teenagers like Johnkendrion and Kaylen whose dreams come “a size too big.”
“Our work as educators is making sure they get everything they need to grow into those dreams, to make sure that those are the reality,” Lambrecht said.
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Collegiate, which started in New Orleans in 2007 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has prided itself on its openness to students from a wide range of backgrounds. Roughly 21 percent of its students have some kind of identified disability, a high level by almost any measure, with nearly half of its students getting what Collegiate calls “special support.”
Wallace said the promise of extra tutoring is part of what sold him on Collegiate.
“(Lambrecht) talked about the availability of teachers for students who need extra help,” Wallace said. “(Jayden) may need extra help. That was a huge point for me.”