January 21, 2015

Baton Rouge's education system a 'tale of two cities,' New Schools founder says

There's too many cooks in the kitchen, but nobody else is interested.That's what Chris Meyer sees when he looks at the education landscape in Baton Rouge, he said in a speech to the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge on Wednesday. Meyer, co-founder of New Schools for Baton Rouge, is one of the biggest names of the local education reform movement, and his organization helped to recruit multiple new charter school operators to open schools in North Baton Rouge this school year.There are a lot of people and organizations -- four local school systems, the state, charter schools, a plethora of nonprofits, and more -- working on education issues in the Baton Rouge area, Meyer said.But instead of a coherent effort to improve education, it's become chaotic, with different organizations duplicating efforts, Meyer said. It's not clear who's in charge.And instead of addressing the root cause of why Louisiana's and Baton Rouge's education systems struggle, so far the education community has taken a "band-aid approach.""We've ended up layering program and program on top of each other," Meyer said, bringing in outside groups like Teach For America and City Year rather than addressing fundamental problems. (Meyer himself is a Teach For America alum.)In addition, those groups are isolated from the larger community, which has disinvested in public education, Meyer said. Education in Baton Rouge is a "tale of two cities," where the lucky ones attend good magnet programs and private schools, while others are at schools where more than half of the students can't meet basic reading standards.So how do you address it? First, Meyer said, recruit the best school operators to the area. Recruiting charter operators has been the central goal of New Schools so far. Five Recovery School District schools in Baton Rouge re-opened as charter schools this fall, and more are on tap for next year, most of which are receiving financial support from New Schools. (There was a hiccup along the way -- the Family Urban Schools of Excellence was set to run Dalton Elementary, but was dropped as the operator after news broke that the organization's then-executive director had a criminal background.)But the work also needs to go beyond that, he said, with a concerted, cohesive effort by local individuals and organizations to build a system of partnerships that works."It feels a little hopeless, but I don't think it is," Meyer said.

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