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Exterior of Broadmoor Middle School Thursday July 1, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. Sito Narcisse's proposal is to turn the school, which was closed two years ago, into a grades 6-12 Visual and Performing Arts School, which two elementary schools that focus on visual and performing arts would feed into. There's some history to this idea. Buckskin Bill Black when he was on the board was a big booster of an arts program at that school that got closed as part of the settlement of the deseg case in 2007. But the new program would also compete with McKinley Middle School, which has an active visual & performing arts program. That’s ironic because Broadmoor Middle’s program was closed in part so it wouldn’t compete with McKinley Middle.

A vacant campus on Goodwood Boulevard may soon be transformed into an arts conservatory — “the Juilliard of Baton Rouge” — preparing local teenagers for possible careers in music, dance, theater and the visual arts.

The proposed new school is part of a larger effort by Superintendent Sito Narcisse to add school attractions to draw in new families and reverse years of enrollment declines at traditional public schools.

The most recent preliminary numbers show that overall enrollment in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is up about 800 students compared with last year. Almost all of that growth has come from district-sponsored charter schools.

At non-charter schools, enrollment is down almost 800 students since last year, and down almost 2,200 students compared with two years ago.

The conservatory school in particular is aimed at retaining families who start in elementary arts programs but have fewer options as their children get older. There is no high school in Baton Rouge currently dedicated to the visual and performing arts.

It’s unclear, though, how many Baton Rouge families are interested in a school so focused on the arts at the expense of more traditional high school draws like sports.

Narcisse, who has previously worked in school districts with conservatory schools, has been pushing the idea that Baton Rouge should have one as well since he took over as superintendent in January.

Last week, Narcisse organized a large delegation, which included six School Board members, to visit Miami with the primary goal of seeing some of that city’s educational arts offerings. Of the schools they visited, the closest to what’s being considered here is New World School of the Arts, an arts high school in downtown Miami with about 500 students.

Board member Mike Gaudet came away impressed.

“After what I saw at Miami-Dade, it makes me jealous that we haven’t had this before,” Gaudet said. “It’s just the kind of thing that we just need to get on the boat and get it going and make it happen. Our students deserve this.”

Narcisse first proposed the idea in July, but set it aside temporarily after meeting initial board resistance. He brought it to the board again on Thursday. A final vote is set for Nov. 18.

Three board members expressed clear support Thursday night — Gaudet as well as board member Dadrius Lanus and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

“This is what our students need,” Lanus said. “This is what our community needs.”

Board member Dawn Collins asked for a cost breakdown, while board member Tramelle Howard asked for a detailed “equity plan” so that not just privileged students will benefit from this new school.

Board President David Tatman, who was not present Thursday, has expressed more skepticism. Among other things, he wants to see if there’s sufficient demand to justify such a school and that it won’t negatively impact other middle and high schools in town.

Tatman also is interested in having film, which is not currently part of the proposal, included as a path, saying he considers it “art with a different canvas.”

“I want to make sure that if we’re going to do it, it’s going to work,” Tatman said.

Broadmoor Middle School would be the home for the new school. Mothballed in 2019, the 1225 Sharp Road campus has sat empty while school officials decide what it would be next. In 2018, voters approved $15 million in renovation to the facility, which was built in 1961. Narcisse hopes to use that money not just for renovations but for the spaces needed for the visual and performing arts.

Provisionally called Baton Rouge School for the Arts or Baton Rouge Conservatory of the Arts, the new school would enroll grades six to 12 with about 600 students when full, or about 75 students per grade. The plan is for the new, renovated school to open its doors in fall 2023, educating middle school age students the first year and then adding high school grades a year later in fall 2024.

It would be a new magnet program, part of four new proposed programs in a school district already replete with magnet programs. Another one would be a nearby Broadmoor Elementary School, also focusing on visual and performing arts, which would serve as a feeder for the new conservatory school.

The other two proposed programs would be McKinley High and the under- construction McKinley Elementary, which is to replace Buchanan and University Terrace elementary schools. Those programs would both focus on “innovative arts,” and at the high school it would also focus on communications and establishment of a “teaching academy.”

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None of the four would have minimum admission standards as most other magnet programs in town do. But they would require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA to stay in the school.

The creation of the four new programs is to some extent contingent upon the school system winning a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant. The school system has applied for this grant several times before.

It finally won one in 2017, which provided $15 million over five years to launch new magnet programs at Belaire High and three other nearby schools. That grant has been extended a year due to the pandemic.

East Baton Rouge already has two long-standing arts-focused elementary schools that would feed into it: Baton Rouge Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, or BRCVPA, and Forest Heights Academy of Excellence. Both are popular magnet schools that currently stop at fifth grade.

The board, though, is considering spending $4 million to expand Forest Heights to a K-8 school with a vote scheduled for Nov. 18.

Lanus, an advocate for the Forest Heights expansion, argued that the expanded school would complement the new conservatory school and would give children in north Baton Rouge more school options.

“Nobody should be blocked out of this process,” he said.

McKinley Middle is another school that would arguably be in competition with the new conservatory school. It is a popular magnet school focused on the visual and performing arts.

School officials, however, are saying that McKinley is more of a college prep program than the new conservatory school would be.

By accepting students at middle school as well as high school, the new conservatory school would seek to draw from elementary as well as middle school arts programs. The new school could also draw from the district’s 1,200-plus students in talented arts and the hundreds of students each year who fail to get into the magnet middle and high schools.

The new conservatory school would have its college-related options, including Advanced Placement courses and dual enrollment courses with local colleges.

The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, or NOCCA, is the best known example of a conservatory-style school in Louisiana. Formed in 1973, NOCCA is a state-run high school with 200 to 300 students learning full time and hundreds more who come for part of the day from public and private high schools throughout the New Orleans metro area.

The new Baton Rouge school looks to be different. Besides having middle school grades — unlike NOCCA — it’s envisioned as strictly a full-day school. And it would draw, at least initially, only from within the boundaries of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, though there is talk of developing a way for students outside the district to go to the school.

Tatman, who has worked with NOCCA in the past, said NOCCA has a roster of artist instructors that is nationally renowned. He said he wants some idea of how the new Baton Rouge school could develop its own national reputation.

“Where is the draw? How do you make it that sort of draw for arts and culture?” Tatman asked.

The Baton Rouge arts community appears to be strongly in support of the new school. Members of prominent arts organizations in town have been part of a planning committee to help develop the new school.

“Investment in an arts conservatory will lead to a sizable return on investment due to retention of talent, recruitment of master teachers and professional artists,” argues Ralph Bender, chair-elect of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. “If you look at great artists who left Baton Rouge to go elsewhere and make their mark, perhaps they would be here if there were more opportunities like this. It will elevate the artists and master artists who live in Baton Rouge but whose work could be expanded.”

The arts partners have also influenced the development by persuading school officials to focus initially on just music, dance, theater and visual arts. Sean Joffrion, director of fine arts for the school system, said he’d originally wanted as many as 15 different arts pathways, but agreed that was too ambitious.

“It does make sense to keep it simple. Let’s get our feet wet,” Joffrion said. “Let’s do these things we know we do well right now and make sure we have those at the forefront of our performing arts school.”

The new school would focus not just on students enrolled. Joffrion said it would hold a summer camp to try to identify students who otherwise wouldn’t be in line for a school like the conservatory school. Also, it would hold after hours arts lessons open to families across Baton Rouge.

“This performing arts school will be able to do that for every child in the district regardless of what school they go to,” Joffrion said.


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

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