Hey, School Board! Good ‘nuf Isn’t an Acceptable Standard!

On Thursday, January 16, 2013, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System’s board will have yet another opportunity to choose between accepting a half-baked, sloppy proposal offered by their well-paid staff, or rejecting it in favor of a better plan.  Actually, there will be three such opportunites, regarding Polk, Brookstown and Woodlawn/JeffersonTerrace/Westminster schools.

Polk Elementary

The proposal under consideration would convert Polk Elementary to a foreign-language immersion school (with a Spanish program and a Mandarin program), similar to the existing successful program at the School Formerly Known as South Boulevard Elementary (BR FLAIM, or Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet).

While it is possible that the proposal under consideration represents the best available option, there are many questions that apparently haven’t been answered but should (in my opinion) be answered before the board moves to approve this idea:

  • How many seats were available in each magnet program, and how many students applied for each during the recently-completed application period?
  • Where do the current magnet students at each school, and the potential magnet students applying for each program, reside?  Where are their parents employed?
  • Of students who applied but did not receive magnet seats in the past, how many stayed in the EBRPSS system and how many went elsewhere?
  • Is there space available elsewhere in the district where a magnet program could or should be placed?
  • Will there be an effort to make gifted services available in the areas where the students live, or will gifted students continue to be expected to travel outside their neighborhoods to receive the programs specified by their individual educational plans?
  • Does it make any sense to have gifted programs at both Buchanan and University Terrace Elementaries given their proximity to one another?
  • Would it make more sense to serve the known demand for more seats in Spanish (and possibly French) immersion before starting a new program with a different language?
  • What is the average cost of instruction at each school in the district?  Are tiny schools really substantially more expensive per capita than huge schools?
  • Do all immersion programs need to be located near each other (or eventually in one larger facility)?  If so, is that also true of other types of magnet programs?

There is an opportunity cost to choosing adoption of the current Polk proposal.  It takes money, time, space and other resources away from other competing ideas that might be better choices.

Brookstown

The board has been asked to consider designating the former Brookstown Elementary (currently occupied by the Career Academy charter high school) as a middle school to serve a mixture of neighborhood and magnet students.  The proposed attendance area is part of the attendance area associated with Prescott Middle School prior to the Recovery School District’s seizure of the Prescott campus.  As was the case with the Polk proposal, this plan has some merit.  Unfortunately, there are again many unanswered questions and options that don’t appear to have been fully considered.

  • Would Brookstown be better used as the site for the Children’s Charter School (currently housed in the former Nicholson Elementary building)?
  • Would Brookstown be better returned to its former purpose as a neighborhood elementary school, particularly to serve the many students within walking distance?
  • Would Brookstown be a good site for the magnet programming already proposed for Claiborne Elementary, thus minimizing the need to evict neighborhood students from Claiborne to make room for magnet students?
  • If Brookstown is to be a middle school, is it fair that a student living a block away (on the sourh side of Prescott Road) would still be expected to ride a bus to Southeast Middle School?
  • If Brookstown is to be a middle school, why not offer assignment there to anyone within the old Prescott attendance area?
  • How many magnet programs are appropriate district-wide for the middle school level?  Sherwood, Scotlandville and McKinley Middle Schools are entirely magnets; Westdale and Glasgow have significant magnet, gifted or talented components.
  • If there is a shortage of space at the middle school level, particularly in North Baton Rouge, how can one justify setting aside space for a magnet program?
  • When will the board insist on a strengthening of the baseline program at neighborhood schools to reduce the demand for magnet programs?
  • If a typical middle school has nearly a thousand students, why wouldn’t each one offer a wide range of classes including electives?
  • Does it make more sense to have all students interested in a particular class travel to the same school, or to have teachers travel from school to school, or to teach some classes using video links among district schools?
  • Does the board intend to let the Recovery School District operate Prescott Middle School as a kindergarten without challenge?
  • Does the board intend to let the Recovery School Distrcit use Glen Oaks Middle School and Istrouma High School as office space without challenge?

I’m not convinced that the proposed plan represents the highest and best use of the Brookstown facility.  Unless board members are convinced, they should vote “no” and ask the staff for a better idea. If the staff is unable to present a better idea, perhaps we need a better staff.

Woodlawn, Jefferson Terrace and Westminster

Because there is residential construction underway in Woodlawn Elementary’s attendance zone, there is a proposal under consideration to shrink the school’s attendance area. Some current students would be shifted to Jefferson Terrace for next year and beyond, making extra room available at Woodlawn for potential students that might move into the new homes. Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient capacity at Jefferson Terrace to fit as many students as are proposed to be sent there, so other students would be bumped from Jefferson Terrace and sent to Westminster. Again, there are many questions that should be asked, and answered, before this idea gets seriously considered. After all, board member Jill Dyason has suggested “data-driven” decision making as a goal for the board.

  • Is Woodlawn Elementary currently above capacity at any grade level? (The answer was “no”, at least as of late December.)
  • Is Woodlawn even the school closest to not having room for its neighborhood kids?
  • Does it make sense, as an area undergoes significant growth, to keep shifting students bit by bit to schools outside the area? Might it make more sense to identify the appropriate location and start planning and building an additional school?
  • What criteria are used to determine whether new schools will be built, and where? There is new construction along the Bluebonnet Extension, but no plan to accomodate students who might come from those new homes (unless we call the charter school by the corner of Burbank the “plan”).
  • Is it good policy to move an actual student who has already chosen the public system to make room for a hypothetical student who MIGHT choose the public school system?
  • When (if ever) will the system decide to study all attendance zones to consider changes (both to attendance zones and program locations) that might lower costs and increase convenience for families in the district?.

Since these questions have not been answered, and almost certainly will not be satisfactorily answered during the discussion at Thursday’s meeting, the appropriate vote for board members on this agenda item would also be “no.” There should also be an explicit message sent to the Superintendent and his central administrative staff that it’s time to start providing the quality of work one would reasonably expect from a half-billion-dollar-a-year agency serving more than forty thousand students in a forward-thinking capital city with several institutions of higher education.

Maybe some better ideas could be proposed in time for the February cycle of committee and board meetings? We can hope so.

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