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Published in Print: May 22, 2013, as Debates Roil Over Control of Schools in Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge Struggles to Keep Control of Schools

Louisiana district resists more splintering

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Efforts to create a new school district and reshuffle student assignments in East Baton Rouge Parish, La., have set off a heated conversation between state and district officials about accountability and the future governance of schools in that area.

A bill that would allow the creation of a new school district that includes the southeastern part of the city of Baton Rouge—home to many of the 43,000-student district's white and more affluent students—passed the state Senate and the state House of Representatives' education committee earlier this month.

The proposed Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District, which is being promoted by a group called Local Schools for Local Children, would be the fourth new district to be carved out of East Baton Rouge Parish since 2003, and the first within city limits. The previously formed districts in Zachary, Baker, and Central City now serve many of the white students in the parish as well. And the Zachary district has some of the state's highest test scores.

Meanwhile, Bernard Taylor Jr., who is in his first year as the superintendent of the parish school system, has proposed changes aimed at improving its low student performance—and also at preventing more schools from being taken over by Louisiana's state-run Recovery School District.

They include moving a 101-student gifted education program to a lower-performing school nearby. A group of students from the lower-performing school would be transferred to the school that housed the gifted program, Mr. Taylor said.

Fending Off the State

The district's board has also approved a "family of schools" plan that would change student assignment in areas of the district, restructure several failing schools and close another, and move overage students to "superintendent's academies" that target their needs.

In an interview, Mr. Taylor played up the academic and logistical rationales for the planned moves, but was unabashed in saying that the changes were also aimed at preventing schools from being taken over by the Recovery School District.

"Absolutely, I hope to avoid the RSD taking over schools," he said. "I don't know of any superintendent who wants to see them taken over by an entity whose primary focus is not just the students in that area."

Shifting Boundaries

If approved, the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District would be the fourth new district to be carved out of the East Baton Rouge Parish district since 2003. The state-run Recovery School District also runs eight schools in the parish school district.

The state-run district, which already oversees eight schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, was created in 2003 with the aim of improving persistently low-performing schools in the state, often by turning them over to charter operators. Schools that have failed to meet state student-achievement benchmarks for four consecutive years are eligible for takeover.

Twenty schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish district were classified as failing last year.

Louisiana schools Superintendent John White, who previously led the state-run district, described the planned moves in Baton Rouge as "cynical" and "craven." In an interview, he said that the parish district's plans were aimed at improving test scores rather than the quality of education.

"It's a cover-up," he said. "They've put forward a plan that moves kids around to try to cover up failures. ... It just makes a complete mockery of the pillars of education."

A Fraught History

Student-assignment changes and new districts in the Baton Rouge area have frequently been fraught with racial implications. The East Baton Rouge Parish district was the subject of a desegregation lawsuit that lasted from 1956 until 2003, with federal oversight of the district's desegregation plan ending in 2007.

While students are no longer bused to maintain racial balance in schools, some students from poorer areas of the parish still travel to schools in better-off communities—sometimes to attend special programs, sometimes to address space concerns, district officials said.

Many students who would have attended schools now run by the state district opted to remain in the East Baton Rouge Parish system instead, which has also led to crosstown busing, said Tarvald Smith, the vice chairman of the district's school board.

District spokeswoman Susan Nelson said some proponents of the proposed new district are unhappy that students opting out of RSD schools from less affluent northern neighborhoods are being sent to schools in the southeastern part of the city of Baton Rouge.

State Sen. Mack "Bodi" White, who wrote the bill that would create the new district, said the proposal stems from decades of mismanagement by the existing school board.

"It's hard to recruit companies and corporations to this parish if they know their kids have to go to the [East Baton Rouge] system," said Sen. White, a Republican. "Half of the kids go to private or parochial schools."

A group called One Community One School District is opposing the creation of a new district, saying that the East Baton Rouge Parish system is already struggling with legacy costs related to the creation of the previous three districts, and that the demographic changes caused by the breakaway district would hurt students and the district.

The proposed district means, for instance, that the current school system would go from having 86 percent of students eligible to receive free and reduced-price lunch to 90 percent, while 67 percent of students in the new district would qualify for subsidized lunches.

Fifty-seven percent of the new district's students would be black, compared with 86 percent of the remaining district. The state legislature's black caucus has stated its intention to vote against the bill.

Rocky Start

Meanwhile, Mr. White, the state chief, said the state would consider making changes to its accountability system—including taking into account growth in student scores on standardized tests, rather than their achievement levels—to deter districts from moving programs to improve a school's state-test scores.

Chris Meyer, a former deputy superintendent in the RSD who is now the executive director of New Schools for Baton Rouge, a nonprofit group founded last year to bring high-quality charter operators to the district, said the state-run district had a rocky start in the city: Seven of the first schools it took over were entrusted as charters to local organizations that, while well-intentioned, did not have much experience running schools.

Those charter holders later returned their schools to the state-run district, and each school is now considered to be failing by the state.

"The RSD is a four-letter word here when it runs schools directly," Mr. Meyer said.

Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the RSD, said that the difficulties of the previous charter operators did not mean the state district should change its strategy.

"We don't want to give up on bringing in empowering, higher-quality teachers and leaders just because the first group we tried weren't of the ilk we need," he said.

And he is skeptical of Mr. Taylor's plan to move students around. "I don't see from a pedagogical standpoint how that'll make a difference for the kids in the chronically low-performing schools," Mr. Dobard said.

But Mr. Taylor said he is concerned about the future of the parish schools if the state is able to take over more schools while yet another section of the district breaks off to become its own school system.

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"The disaster-in-waiting is, if you keep carving something up piece by piece by piece, the educationally savvy, regardless of where they sit, will be just fine. ... Those who are not educationally savvy, we'll probably wind up serving," he said, "and we'll have less resources to serve them."

State Superintendent White said the parish district's long record of having low-performing schools has not helped its case.

"If they're so concerned about the state taking over their schools," he said, "there's an easy way to do that—that's to improve. We're not interested in running schools, we're interested in them being successful."

Vol. 32, Issue 32, Page 6

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