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Package in Baton Rouge: Choice and School-Based Management

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In the midst of the political and economic blues that have been sweeping over Louisiana, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System is attempting to strike a hopeful note by embarking on a novel experiment that combines school-based management with parental choice.

These two highly touted school-improvement strategies have apparently never before been implemented simultaneously in a large urban school system, national experts said last week.

Supporters of the plan, which will operate in 12 of the district's 102 schools next fall, hope that it will focus the system's energy on improving student achievement in a manner they say is not possible under the traditional school-district structure.

They also hope that it will eventually lead to an end to the district's racial imbalance problems, which have kept it tied up in the federal courts for more than 32 years.

"I think what we've tried to do is put in one package a number of salient ingredients that deal with the problems of schools in an urban area, rather than try to put a Band Aid on one issue or another,'' said Bernard J. Weiss, the district's superintendent.

A one-year trial of the plan was approved last month by U.S. District Judge John V. Parker after the school board, the U.S. Justice Department, and the local NAACP agreed--for the first time in the history of the district's school-desegregation lawsuit--to sign a joint petition to the court.

If the pilot program proceeds according to its designers' expectations, and continues to gain the approval of Judge Parker and other parties to the suit, within four years all of the district's schools will be locally managed and open to any of its students.

Advisory Panels Formed

The parents, teachers, principals, and community members who are involved with each of the pilot schools have been working at a frantic pace in the weeks since the plan was approved.

Each school has established a local advisory council, composed of at least three parents, three teachers, two other staff members, two community members, and the principal. Two students have also been elected to serve on the councils for each of the three high schools and two middle schools involved in the pilot program.

Members of the advisory councils have attended two days of training, are conducting needs assessments of their schools, and have outlined the enhancements that they hope to have in place by next fall.

They range from a elementary program geared towards the needs of students with dyslexia to a high-school center that will focus on law-related careers.

The councils will function as "a kind of mini board of directors'' but will not have the authority to hire and fire their principals, Mr. Weiss said.

In the first year, they will have between $3,000 and $4,000 in discretionary budget authority, plus any outside resources that can be raised.

The councils' "enthusiasm really knocked me over,'' said Karl Marburger, an expert on school-based management and former commissioner of education in New Jersey, who is serving as a consultant to the district and conducted some of the training.

Mr. Marburger, who currently works for the National Committee for Citizens in Education, said he knows of no other urban school district that had tried to combine school-based management with districtwide open enrollment.

"I'm excited by the possibilities--it has a chance to really fly,'' he said. "I think it can really be a model for the nation.''

The plan has generated "tremendous public interest,'' said Mr. Weiss, adding that more than 1,100 parents had called the district to inquire about or apply to the pilot schools.

Local corporations, foundations, and community leaders have also offered to lend their support, which could help ease the district's "tenuous'' financial condition, he said.

Baton Rouge has shared in the economic downturn besetting Louisiana and other states that rely heavily on revenues from the oil industry. And, as the state capital, it has also borne the brunt of the negative publicity generated by the state's unusual political machinations.

"The school system is the most important thing we have going,'' said Harold L. Swuire, a former educator who now works for the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce.

The mood of hope and optimism generated by the new school plan "is electrifying,'' he said.

Lawsuit's End a Goal

The pilot program has been developed over the past nine months by a school-redesign committee appointed by Mr. Weiss shortly after he was hired as superintendent. The committee's 21 members included prominent businessmen, representatives from Louisiana State University and Southern University, and parent and community leaders.

One of the explicit goals of the committee was to find a way to bring the system's long-running desegregation case to an end, Mr. Weiss said.

Since the case was first filed against the district in 1956, numerous desegregation plans and modifications have wended their way through the federal court system and into the schools, officials said.

The district currently operates under a mandatory busing plan designed by Judge Parker in 1981, but 13 schools remain virtually all-white or all-black.

Although the local NAACP has approved the new plan, its officials are not sure why they were asked to become involved.

The plan "is a management plan--it has nothing to do with desegregation at all,'' said G. Washington Eames, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP

Although the pilot plan has gained court approval, it will not change the terms of the existing desegregation order, but rather will act as an overlay to it.

Students from throughout the district will be free to apply to the pilot schools on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as the schools they would be leaving would not become significantly more segregated as a result of their departure.

The NAACP will be paying particular attention to the one-race schools when determining whether it will support extending the plan into a second year, said Robert Williams, the lawyer who represents the association in the case.

They will be looking not only at the racial balance in these schools, he said, but also at "the type of programs that they adopt, whether they can be replicated elsewhere, where the students came from, and their willingness to remain where they are.''

"It would be a sad thing,'' he added, "to see school-based management go out based upon the racial composition of the pilot schools.''

End to Busing

But Mr. Weiss hopes that the open-enrollment concept may one day obviate the need for mandatory busing, provided that parents can be convinced that all of the district's schools offer a quality education.

"I'm personally very optimistic we will be able to draw students from all races to the pilot schools,'' he said.

Two of the pilot schools are currently 100 percent black, he said. "If we don't do anything, they'll be all-black next year, too.''

The NAACP's lawyer is skeptical about the ability of an open-enrollment plan to match the performance of the current busing plan, which he said is "working very well.''

"We're going to have people who failed the 6th grade making choices about the best kind of education for their children or their grandchildren,'' Mr. Williams said. "It seems illogical. It's a flawed concept.''

But in the next breath he added: "Hopefully, it will work.''

The open-enrollment component of the plan will also aim to stimulate school improvements by creating an "entrepreneurial spirit'' in the district, Mr. Weiss said.

At least one other school has already formed an advisory council and is working to implement educational enhancements in order to avoid losing students to the pilot schools, he said.

"We are encouraging schools to meet their students' needs in a variety of creative ways,'' he added.

Enough Time for 'Results'

One of the reasons that choice plans have proven successful in improving schools, experts say, is that they tend to allow school staffs greater freedom by obligating them to design distinctive programs to attract students.

"The choice arrangement tends to provide for more school autonomy, but it's technically unintended,'' said Mary Anne Raywid, an expert in both choice and school-based management and a professor of educational administration at Hofstra University.

Baton Rouge, she said, "is the first place I know about that's made it official.''

But she expressed concern that the one-year life of the pilot program imposed by Judge Parker may allow it too little time to demonstrate significant results.

"All the studies of school-based management suggest it really takes time to implement,'' she said.

Mr. Marburger agreed, saying "They're not going to see dramatic changes in a year.''

"I don't expect to have conclusive evidence that the plan is working at the end of the year,'' responded Mr. Weiss. "But I expect to see enough happening to be able to convince the court and the litigants that this is an improvement over what we have been doing.''

Monitoring Efforts

The pilot program also includes other components that appear unique to Baton Rouge.

Each of the pilot school's efforts will be monitored by "audit teams,'' composed of members of other schools' advisory councils.

The audit teams may also be called upon to mediate disputes between a school's advisory council and its principal that may arise over issues such as programmatic choices, budget priorities, or personnel decisions, Mr. Weiss said.

In addition, a districtwide oversight committee composed of representatives from the NAACP, organized labor, business, teachers, and community organizations will have the right to approve or seek modifications in each school's "action plan.''

"We don't intend to walk away from a school and simply let it float,'' said Mr. Weiss. "If intervention is needed, we'll be there, possibly with enhancements from our local universities.''

Although he admits that many pitfalls, both known and unknown, could undermine the new plan, Mr. Weiss argues that the traditional centralized control of a school district is "an anachronism.''

"One can't presume to oversee the operations of a hundred schools and do so cogently from a few offices located in one place in the city,'' he said.

"If we're going to save our public education system, it's got to happen at the school level.''

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