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The Airline Highway construction entrance to BASIS Baton Rouge, a much touted charter school set to open in August, on March 9. The charter school is located next to Women’s Hospital as part of a corporate partnership with the hospital. Woman's is also planning to use land around the new school for a mixed-used development to be called Materra.

A popular charter school in Baton Rouge is hitting turbulence as it seeks special standards for promoting its children to the next grade, standards likely more difficult than those in other East Baton Rouge Parish public schools.

The request by BASIS Baton Rouge prompted a lengthy debate Thursday by the parish School Board. It turned on the question of whether schools like BASIS, as well as selective magnet schools, provide academic opportunities to minority and low socioeconomic students or if they serve to exclude them from those opportunities.

Board Vice President Tramelle Howard said getting into Baton Rouge magnet schools already forces kids to enter a lottery and those who fail to get in have a “slim to none” chance of getting a high quality education, with the chances even less for minority students. He said BASIS’s requested changes would amount to setting up a new lottery.

“BASIS is a great program. They have educated a lot of great students across the nation, but it should be accessible to every single student,” Howard said.

Board member Jill Dyason, however, argued that, while the higher promotional standards BASIS is seeking might mean more students repeating their grade level, it would mean stronger learning over time.

“My belief is this model is setting students up for success in the long run, instead of immediate success, ‘I passed this grade’ — success that will follow them through a lifetime,” Dyason said.

The board plans to debate the subject again when it meets Sept. 17.

Arizona-based BASIS, which has several high schools that each year make national best-of lists for their academics, opened its first school in Louisiana in 2018. Located next to Woman’s Hospital, its corporate sponsor, BASIS Baton Rouge quickly became popular and now has about 700 students in grades kindergarten to six. High demand led the School Board in May 2019 to agree to allow BASIS to open another school in Baton Rouge, likely in fall 2021.

Dyason, who represents that part of Baton Rouge, said she has “heard nothing but positives” about the school since it opened.

“I hear comments about the culture being very inclusive and nurturing to the student,” Dyason said.

Thursday’s debate centered around what’s known as the pupil progression plan, which lays out how a school district ensures “the student's mastery of grade-appropriate skills before he or she can be recommended for promotion.”

BASIS and the other eight district-sponsored charter schools in Baton Rouge — they are known as Type 1 charters — all use the school system’s pupil progression plan. BASIS is the first such charter school to push for its own plan.

Non-district charter schools, particularly those sponsored by the state, already have the freedom to establish their own pupil progression plan. Type 1 charter schools like BASIS, though, first need the approval of their sponsoring school district.

Roberto Ramirez, the principal of BASIS Baton Rouge, said the proposed changes are meant to align its standards with those of the other schools in the BASIS network. He said BASIS standards usually exceed those of states such as Arizona and Texas, where the charter schools operate.

BASIS Baton Rouge, which plans to eventually go all the way to 12th grade, this year has its first sixth-grade class.

BASIS is known for offering advanced coursework at earlier grades than other schools. So, BASIS sixth-graders are typically taking their first years of algebra, physics, chemistry, biology and are in their second year of Latin, Ramirez said.

BASIS gives an in-house comprehensive exam that its sixth-graders need to pass, either at the end of the year or in a summer retest, to advance to seventh grade. Other East Baton Rouge schools have no such high-stakes test for that grade.

Board member Connie Bernard said she will oppose the plan as long as BASIS insists on using its own standardized test, as opposed to using a recognized nationally normed test or a state-level test like the LEAP test.

“That is not an acceptable measure or an acceptable placement instrument,” Bernard said.

Another BASIS proposed change that sparked debate is its insistence that it may place transfer students in a lower grade than the grade the students were in at their previous school if those students do poorly on a BASIS readiness test. East Baton Rouge accepts at face value the grade level of transfer students as long as they are coming from an accredited school.

Ramirez downplayed the chances of such grade demotion happening, especially in elementary grades, noting that his school’s practice so far has been to work hard to close the gap with students, including ones that come in years behind the BASIS standard. But he acknowledged that’s more difficult to do with students transferring from other middle and high schools who are behind where their BASIS peers are.

Board President Mike Gaudet criticized his colleagues for micromanaging BASIS’s policies and said he will judge the school instead by its outcomes.

“I’m willing to vote for this and let you guys do it,” Gaudet said, “and my judgment is gonna be at the end when we see how the pudding comes out.”


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