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An evaluator hired by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is recommending the approval of three applications, out of 10, filed by those hoping to start charter schools in Baton Rouge starting in fall 2020.

All three of the favored applications are from established charter school groups and one is local: CSAL. The others are part of networks based outside Louisiana, BASIS.ed and KIPP. If approved, that would greenlight five new schools that could eventually enroll as many as 4,473 students.

Recommended for denial are two groups with schools already — Helix Community Schools and Connections Academy — as well as five hoping to start their first charter schools: Auspice Academy, Bellissimo Beginnings, Carmouche Performing Arts Academy, Kennedy Elementary School and Xcel Technical Academy. They collectively represent eight schools that could eventually enroll as many as 9,666 students.

The parish School Board plans to take up the 10 applicants, five a night, at special meetings scheduled for Thursday and Monday. Both meetings are to start at 4 p.m. at the School Board Office, 1050 S. Foster Drive.

Rejected applicants have the chance to appeal to state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to obtain a charter.

Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts. There are currently 29 charter schools in Baton Rouge that educate about 10,000 children. Ten are chartered by the parish school system, known as Type 1 charters, and they educate about 3,800 children.

The school system is in the midst of trying to identify $25 million-plus in budget cuts to avoid dipping further into its reserves. School officials blame some of their financial problems on the growth of charter schools and related drops in enrollment at many traditional public schools in Baton Rouge. Leaders of local teacher unions consequently have urged the board to consider a moratorium on approving new charter schools.

The 10 applicants this year submitted their applications by March 1. Six are more traditional brick-and-mortar schools, two are virtual schools, one is a performing arts school and one is boarding school that seeks to teach trade skills to older teenagers.

Mary “Katie” Blunschi, a former school administrator in Baton Rouge, was hired as the legally required outside evaluator, at a cost of $2,500 per application. She and a team of school system administrators interviewed all 10 applicants April 15-16.

Blunschi reviewed each applicant based on academics, financial readiness and finances, board readiness, school leader and board performance tasks, school leadership team capacity, scale strategy, growth plan and past school performance.

BASIS.ed scored the best, earning 96.8 percent of the available points, while Bellissimo Beginnings scored the worst, with just 53.5 percent of the available points.

Blunschi also commented on the applications.

For KIPP:New Orleans, a New Orleans-based affiliate of the San Francisco-based KIPP, she had only good things to say: “The application is comprehensive in nature and supported by research with data aligned to the central mission of improved student achievement.”

For Kennedy Elementary School, she was not so complimentary: “The plan for the proposed school is not cohesive. Important parts of the plan are missing, and it is unclear if the leadership team is prepared for something as important as opening a school.”

All three applicants Blunschi is recommending are experienced operators running schools already. They've been endorsed by and are receiving financial assistance from the nonprofit group, New Schools for Baton Rouge.

The application that was the closest call was from Helix Community Schools. It has one school that it’s operating now, Mentorship Academy in Baton Rouge. Helix has received financial help from New Schools for Baton Rouge to develop its ambitious plans to add two schools that would educate almost 3,200 students.

Blunschi complimented Helix’ application as “very well written and comprehensive in nature” and awarded Helix 96 percent of the available points. But while good on paper, Blunschi was troubled by Mentorship’s low scores on the ACT and other standardized tests. She encouraged Helix to raise those scores and try again in the future.

Key details from the applications:

KIPP: New Orleans

# of Schools in Network: 224.

# of Schools Sought: 3.

School Leader: Not reported.

Locations: Not reported.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 481 (577 max) in 2020-21 in grades K-1, 5 and 9.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 2,462 (2,954 max) by 2023-24 in grades K-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 95 percent.

Special Education Target: 14 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $18,380 in Year 1; $12,101 at Year 5.

Notable: KIPP, short for Knowledge Is Power Program, has been celebrated since it opened high-performing middle schools in Houston and New York City in the 1990s. It came to New Orleans in 2005 and now has seven schools there. This would be its first foray in Baton Rouge, though it has seriously considered setting up shop here before. The nonprofit group, New Schools For Baton Rouge, has pledged an estimated $1.7 million in startup money to KIPP.

Once known for long school days and years and working exclusively in middle schools, many KIPP schools now have a more traditional schedule. The network also operates elementary and high schools. It has increased its emphasis on college through the years. Its high school in Baton Rouge plans to offer AP courses, dual college enrollment, calculus and environmental science. College counselors attend specific classes with students to prepare them for college/career.

Evaluator Recommendation: Approve. Reasons include “acceptable academic performance” at KIPP’s New Orleans schools, including a B letter grade at its lone high school there, as well as a strong application: “The application is comprehensive in nature and supported by research with data aligned to the central mission of improved student achievement.”


BASIS.ed

# of Schools in Network: 27 (1 in Baton Rouge).

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: Not reported.

Location: Not reported.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 450 (540 max) in 2020-21 in grades K-6.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 866 (1,039 max) by 2026-27 in grades K-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 10 percent.

Special Education Target: 5 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $11,449 in Year 1; $10,855 in Year 5.

Notable: BASIS, based in Arizona, has a reputation for high academic achievement and college readiness. Its original high schools routinely land on best-of high school lists. Its Baton Rouge school, which opened in August, is already reporting a long waiting list for next year and that nearly half of its current students previously attended private and parochial schools.

BASIS’ goal is for its graduates to enter college prepared to do at least intermediate college course work, and that its students can compete “against their international peers in highly performing education systems.” It wants students to see that “learning is exciting, rewarding, and worthwhile — and not just now, but for a lifetime.” In the grades 1-4, traditional classroom teachers team up with subject-matter experts.

Evaluator Recommendation: Approve. Reasons include the strong track record of non-Louisiana BASIS.ed schools; its Baton Rouge school has not been open long enough to get a school report card but it has met several of its internal “milestones.” An area of concern is the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity at that school compared other local public schools; only 33 percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty, far less than the district or state.


CSAL

# of Schools in Network: 3 (all in Baton Rouge)

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: Not reported.

Location: 1600 block of Choctaw Drive (new facility).

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 175 (210 max) in 2020-21 in grades K-2.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 400 (480 max) by 2024-25 in grades K-5.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 85 percent.

Special Education Target: 5 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $30,999 in Year 1; $8,385 in Year 5.

Notable: CSAL currently operates two brick-and-mortar schools in Baton Rouge, CSAL Middle and Madison Preparatory Academy High School, which opened in 1997 and 2009, respectively. Short for Community School for Apprenticeship Learning, CSAL now wants to open an elementary feeder school in response to demand from parents. The group is in talks with New Schools for Baton Rouge about financing construction of the new school; CSAL’s budget calls for an initial construction budget of about $5.4 million. The elementary schools would adapt CSAL’s methods to “to better fit the needs of younger students,” while preserving its core components. The school will focus on “center-based learning, experiential learning, and explicit social and emotional development. CSAL, unlike many other local charter schools, has kept up good relations through the years with the school system.

Evaluator Recommendation: Approve. Reasons focused on the pluses of Madison Prep, including higher than average rate of students enrolling in college, ACT scores, as well as results from students of color as well as those living in poverty. “The leadership at CSAL has successfully managed a school, a team of teachers and academic programs that show academic growth."


Helix Community Schools

# of Schools in Network: 1 (Mentorship Academy in Baton Rouge)

# of Schools Sought: 2.

School Leader: Chastity George, Mentorship Legal Academy; Casey Smith, Helix Aviation Academy. Both now work at Mentorship; George as an assistant principal and Smith as director of programs and student affairs.

Locations: Downtown and near Baton Rouge Airport.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 240 (288 max) in 2020-21 in grade 6.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 2,640 (3,168) by 2026-27 in grades K-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 88 percent.

Special Education Target: 5 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $14,089 in Year 1; $7,353 in Year 5.

Notable: Helix since 2010 has run Mentorship in downtown Baton Rouge. Helix say it is “dedicated to creating pathways to opportunity for low‐income students of color” particularly in STEM, short for science, technology, engineering and math. The nonprofit group, New Schools for Baton Rouge, has given Helix financial assistance in developing its expansion plans; Helix Board Chairman Preston Castille was previously chairman of New Schools’ board. One of the proposed new schools would have aviation as its theme, the other would focus on legal studies.

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons all focused on issues Mentorship Academy: low performance on ACT and other standardized tests, below average college enrollment rate and lack of JumpStart and Advanced Placement courses. Application complimented as “very well written.”


Louisiana Connections Academy

# of Schools in Network: 39.

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: Not reported.

Location: Not reported.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 500 (600 max) in 2020-21 in grades K-12.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 3100 (3,720 max) by 2024-25 in grades K-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 44 percent.

Special Education Target: 12 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $9,125 in Year 1; 9,463 in Year 5.

Notable: This applicant ran an online school of the same name in Baton Rouge from 2011 to 2017. The proposed school is a franchise of Columbia, Maryland-based Connections Education, a division of textbook giant Pearsons.

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons include other online schools already available in Baton Rouge, low performance of other Connections Academy schools in math and English, curricula that is not Tier 1 as defined by Louisiana Department of Education, potential reliance on parents as “learning coaches” at home and indications that the school hopes to enroll rural students outside the parish.


Xcel Technical Academy

# of Schools in Network: 0.

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: James Kador, currently an assistant principal at Glen Oaks High.

Location: Not reported.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 400 (480 max) in 2020-21 in grades 9-12.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 600 (720 max) by 2023-24 in grades 9-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 100 percent.

Special Education Target: 50 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $14,377 in Year 1; $15,149 in Year 5.

Notable: Boarding school set up as an alternative school for 18- to 19-year-olds still in ninth or 10th grade. These over-age students would earn certificates in career and technical fields such as “laying floor tile, carpet, wood, professional painting, brick masonry, heavy equipment operator, backhoe, forklift and and scissor lift.” All students would finish with a commercial driver’s license, “an OSHA Card and a TWIC card.”

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons include lack of a sound budget, no viable transportation plan, no student handbook and no reasonable school performance score goal.

Also, no verification was provided that board member Derek Morgan, now principal at Wilkinson County High School in Mississippi, had fully resolved past accusations that he stole money when he was principal of Southern Lab and Scotlandville High School in Baton Rouge.


Bellissimo Beginnings

# of Schools in Network: 0.

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: Jennifer Andrews-Bynum, a teacher at Broadmoor Middle School in Baton Rouge.

Location: Somewhere in 70815 area code.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 100 (120 max) in 2020-21 in grades RK-K.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 280 (336 max) by 20?-? in grades PK-3.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 89 percent.

Special Education Target: Not reported.

Per-Pupil Spending: $10,446 in Year 1; $10,787 in Year 5.

Notable: This “year-round school” has 180 school days, same as traditional public schools, but a shorter summer break and a handful of shorter breaks, “intercessions” over the rest of the school year. Parents are encouraged to complete 20 hours of service. School leader Andrews-Bynum in 2014 ran unsuccessfully against Mark Bellue for School Board District 1, which is partially in 70815. Board member Pamela Kennedy is leading up the application for Kennedy Elementary School.

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons include failure to address school culture and financial readiness, and incomplete info on board readiness. Three of original board members have already resigned and the background check on a leader raised concerns.


Auspice Academy

# of Schools in Network: 0.

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: Lacretia Terrance, faculty member with San Francisco-based Buck Institute for Education.

Location: 1335 Wooddale Blvd., rental.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 80 (96 max) in 2020-21 in grades K-3.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 260 (312 max) by 2024-25 in grades K-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 76.3 percent.

Special Education Target: 13 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $27,996 in Year 1; $13,522 in Year 5.

Notable: Online school for students who “a danger to themselves and/or others as well as students whom parents deem it necessary to home school.” A “child-specific therapist” would serve children at home in the presence of a parent. Classes to have five to seven students each. Teacher will visits students for two hours each week. The applications lists seven administrators by name and job title. The application is riddled with typos.

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons include concerns about finances, no student handbook, no transportation plan for in-person instruction, a background check issue with the facilities director and lack of certification by the school leader/executive director.


Carmouche Performing Arts Academy

# of Schools in Network: 0.

# of Schools Sought: 1

School Leader: Latasha Skidmore, currently principal of Children’s Charter School in Baton Rouge.

Location: Renting space, unclear where.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 175 (210 max) in 2020-21 in grades 6-9.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 575 (690 max) by 2024-25 in grades 6-12.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 95 percent.

Special Education Target: 50 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $16,201 in Year 1; $6,932 in Year 5.

Notable: A performing arts school where “at-risk” students “develop critical thinking, creative expression and basic learning skills through the arts. An after-school program of this name is already operating in New Orleans. Like that program, the school founder is Todrick Carmouche of New Orleans, currently director of the marching and pep bands at Southern University in New Orleans. Teaching artists would work together with with classroom teachers. Students would have to audition to gain admittance.

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons include “very general” info on the performing arts the school would offer, no budget for student transportation and no money set aside for a counselor or librarian. Also of concern are eight prior arrests of Carmouche between 2004 and 2008.


Kennedy Elementary School

# of Schools in Network: 0.

# of Schools Sought: 1.

School Leader: Joyce Girard, former teacher at Sylvanie Williams School in New Orleans.

Location: Somewhere in 70805 area code.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Start): 300 (360 max) in 2020-21 in grades K-2.

Enrollment & Grade Configuration (Peak): 500 (600 max) by 2024-25.

Economically Disadvantaged Target: 85 percent.

Special Education Target: 8 percent.

Per-Pupil Spending: $11,902 in Year 1; $11,610 in Year 5.

Notable: Founder Pamela Kennedy of Metairie points to her 20 years of education experience as what’s innovative about her proposed school: “It’s not filled with lofty ideals but based on proven strategies that produce results in the way of high student achievement.” The application says at one point that the school will be in Orleans Parish. Original application listed school leader as Michael Honore, who served as Girard’s principal years ago. Jennifer Andrews-Bynum, who is applying to start Bellissimo Beginnings, is on board for this school.

Evaluator Recommendation: Deny. Reasons include lack of cohesion, no background checks on some board members, missing pieces to the application and lack of confidence in the leadership team.


Editor's note:  This report was modified after initial posting to clarify the financial assistance given to Helix Community Schools from New Schools for Baton Rouge. 


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.