Despite concerns about how few children from poor backgrounds it will likely serve, Scottsdale, Arizona-based BASIS Schools on Thursday received approval from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to open a charter school in Baton Rouge.
The board also had unanimously approved a charter application from The Emerge Center.
The vote for BASIS was 5-2, with board members Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Dawn Collins voting no. Board member Vereta Lee and David Tatman were absent.
In approving the two schools, the board was following the recommendations of an outside evaluator, Katie Blunschi.
Blunschi, a former administrator for the school system, recommended rejecting the other five applicants. The board rejected all five: Baton Rouge College Prep, Boys Prep Baton Rouge, Collegiate Academies, Greater Hope Academy, and an application by Kenilworth Science & Technology to start a high school.
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The most common objection of Blunschi to the five other applicants was that they were not innovative in that the school system already has schools that offer similar services.
Rejected applicants can appeal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The School Board also voted 7-1 Thursday to renew its contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark to run school maintenance and other support work. Board Connie Bernard vote no; she unsuccessfully pressed to have the final contract brought back to board before going into effect.
After reviewing proposals from 11 companies and interviewing seven, Superintendent Warren Drake urged the board to stay with Aramark. The nearest competitor was Cleveland-based GCA Services Group. Drake promised to include board members in contract negotiations with Aramark.
BASIS is the best known of the charter school applicants. Recruited by the nonprofit New Schools for Baton Rouge, BASIS plans to create a school with kindergarten through 12th grade that would grow to almost 900 students. Its application, however, estimates that only 20 percent of those students will come from poor backgrounds, which would make it one of the most affluent public schools in the state.
Charter schools are public schools run by private groups via charters, or contracts.
The Scottsdale-based group operates 21 charter schools, most of them in Arizona, and has gained worldwide recognition on international exams when its students outscored students from some of the top-scoring nations. The group originally planned to apply for a charter a year ago but held off to gain more community support.
BASIS plans to build a campus on the property of Woman’s Hospital as part of a corporate sponsorship arrangement with the hospital. Children of hospital employees, in turn, will get first dibs on up to half the seats at the school.
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“We’re really excited to come here, not because we see some sort of crisis in education, because we want to be in a place that wants us, that appreciates what we do,” said Peter Bezanson, chief executive officer of BASIS.ed, the for-profit management company that will run the BASIS school in Baton Rouge.
Bezanson said he also hopes in the next five years to open a north Baton Rouge school, but BASIS would have to come back to parish School Board to revise its charter to do that.
Two BASIS supporters connected their support to the St. George breakaway movement.
Nicole Godfrey said the elementary school in her area has a D letter grade so she and other residents of her neighborhood opt for private schools; that’s a lot of the reason she signed the St. George petition. BASIS would change that for her, she said.
“I will continue to send our children to private schools until there is a better option,” Godfrey said.
Joel Fruge, who has three young children and is also opting for private schools, said BASIS is getting his attention.
“I think their qualification and results speak for themselves,” he said. “With options like BASIS, I would have to think another time about signing that St. George petition when it comes back around.”
Several members of the pro-traditional public school group, One Community, One School District spoke out against BASIS mostly because of how few children in poverty other BASIS schools serve, as well as the few students served for whom English is their second language or who receive special education services.
“This model is just as, if not more discriminatory than the St. George breakaway petition, and it does profound harm to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system,” said Tania Nyman, who has two children in public schools.
Bezanson stressed that BASIS does not discriminate against those who apply, holding random lotteries to decide who gets in. But he said that the school is demanding, for instance requiring that every graduate take at least eight Advanced Placement exams and passes at least one.
“We are not for every kid,” he said.
Anna Fogle, president of the Baton Rouge Association of Gifted and Talented Students, noted a news story showing that more of the ninth graders at one school didn't make it to graduation.
“It’s easy to outperform other schools when you only keep the highest performing students,” Fogle said.
Metro Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg, who served on the School Board from 2011 to December 2016, urged approval.
“It could be a game changer not only for our schools system but our entire state,” said Freiberg.
Board member Collins was skeptical of BASIS and worried about the impact on her north Baton Rouge schools.
“When are the schools in my district gonna have what they need to compete with one more charter?” she asked.
Check back for updates as the School Board meeting progresses.