Layoffs begin in Baker school district, but no tenured teachers have been let go yet _lowres

Herman Brister

One of the most prominent families in local public education is launching a small private school in Baton Rouge focusing initially on children as young as 18 months old, but it may expand to elementary school grades.

“Education and excellence are synonymous with the Brister Family,” announces the website for Laboratory School for Leadership and Learning.

Five Brister family members sit on the new school’s advisory board, including Herman Brister Sr., the newly hired superintendent of schools in Baker. The Bristers, however, are steering clear of taking jobs at the private school and instead are continuing their prominent day jobs in public education.

A number of Brister family members work for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. One is a central office administrator, and two are school principals. Herman Brister Sr. also made his career there, including serving for four years as No. 2 in the school system.

Warren Drake, acting superintendent in East Baton Rouge Parish, said he’s aware of the new school.

“I don’t know much about it, but I am going to monitor it closely, see where it goes,” said Drake, who took over the school system June 1.

A less well-known family member, Brandi Brister, an East Baton Rouge Parish schoolteacher, was the new school’s initial administrator. Ann Dorgan, however, has since taken over — she said she started June 1 — and she said she’s developing a curriculum for the new school. Dorgan is a veteran educator who taught most recently at Ryan and Park Elementary schools in Baton Rouge, schools headed by Brister family members.

Laboratory School for Leadership and Learning initially announced it was opening in August, but Dorgan said she wants to see how many children enroll first, so that date may get pushed back.

The school is enrolling children between the ages of 18 months and 48 months, an age range little served by public schools now, and it will meet the latest early childhood academic standards set by the state, she said.

“It will be a little more than just a regular day care,” said Dorgan, who is certified to teach nursery school, elementary grades and serve as a reading specialist in all grades.

The school’s website, however, calls for enrolling students as old as third grade and details the school’s English and math curricula for elementary grades. Dorgan insisted she has no plans to educate children that old.

“I think that may have been the plan a few months ago,” she said.

Laboratory School for Leadership and Learning has applied to become a state-approved nonpublic elementary school. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to approve it and four other private schools when the board convenes June 16. State-approved nonpublic schools have to meet minimum quality standards and maintain nondiscriminatory admissions policies.

Landing that approval opens financial doors. For instance, it allows private schools to accept publicly financed vouchers, as well as the similar tuition donation rebate program, which the state has started to promote. In both cases, taxpayers foot some or all of the tuition and fees for public schoolchildren who want to transfer to state-approved private schools.

Laboratory School has set its tuition at $5,500 a year, plus another $550 in fees.

About a third of the state-approved nonpublic schools in Louisiana enroll children through the voucher program. The window, however, has closed for the 2015-16 school year. If Laboratory School wants to accept voucher students, it will have to wait until 2016-17 and will need to wait yet another year before it can enroll voucher students without restriction.

Herman Brister Sr. said the plan from the get-go has been to seek state approval, but in order to establish the school’s quality, not to attract state money.

“They’ve always wanted to be an accredited school,” he said.

He said it’s up to the school’s board of directors and its attorney whether they pursue vouchers in the future.

“What they intend to be a year from now, I couldn’t say,” he said.

The new school occupies space in a nondescript office building at 440 N. Foster Drive, located just north of Florida Boulevard. For years, the building was home to the tutoring program Community Association for the Welfare of School Children.

Other names prominent in public education are involved with the new school. They include former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board President Jerry Arbour, retired assistant superintendent for middle schools Katie Blunschi and Gussie Trahan, a retired Southern University professor of education. They are three of the nine members of the school’s board of directors. The president of the board is Eddrick Martin, the executive director of the Baranco-Clark YMCA branch.

Herman Brister Sr. is best known for his bids in 2009 and 2012 to become East Baton Rouge Parish schools superintendent, in the process gaining fervid admirers and loud detractors.

He said his children have talked for years about starting a venture to work with preschool-age children and that talk eventually developed into the Laboratory School.

“They didn’t want to compete with the EBR school system,” Herman Brister Sr. said.

His wife, Darlene, is a central office administrator but became well-known herself as the principal of Ryan Elementary, which won a federal Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award in 2009. Three years later, their son, Herman Brister Jr., won his own Blue Ribbon as principal of McKinley Middle School. Their daughter-in-law, Jessica Brister, is the longtime principal of Park Elementary and was placed over several other elementary schools in north Baton Rouge last year.

Herman Brister Jr., now principal at McKinley High School, incorporated Laboratory School for Leadership and Learning in early 2014, as well as a consulting service known as BASIC Education Services LLC.

The new school’s website trumpets the school’s relationship with BASIC consulting, an organization with “a proven track record of educational success in urban, suburban and rural schools.”

Herman Brister Sr., however, said the consulting group is not contracted at present with the school.

“No one is doing any consulting,” he said.

Herman Brister Sr. said it’s possible if and when family members leave or retire from their current jobs they will become more active at the private school.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.