August 1, 2016

Getting students into college is overriding goal of two new Baton Rouge charter schools

Two public charter schools that focus explicitly on preparing children for college are opening their doors in Baton Rouge.Apex Collegiate Academy is the first out the gate, opening Monday with 100-plus sixth-graders in space it is renting from Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Scotlandville. Eight miles to the southeast, in an office building near the intersection of Florida Boulevard and North Foster Drive, Laurel Oaks Charter Academy is opening two weeks later on Aug. 15 with at least 60 kindergartners.Both schools were approved as charter schools in December by state leaders despite objections from East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake. He argued that neither school offers anything that isn’t already available in Baton Rouge and they will be a financial drain of nearly $3 million annually from the school system.The two new schools bring to 23 the number of charter schools — public schools run by private groups via contracts, or charters — in Baton Rouge.On Friday, Apex teachers sat around a table on the second floor of Mount Pilgrim’s Family Life Center, staring at laptops, fine-tuning the lessons they will teach when school starts. They’d been at work since July 11 getting ready for the school year.“The goal is to have two weeks of lessons ready to go,” explained Eric Lewis, Apex’s founder and executive director.The first week of school will focus on getting the incoming students invested in Apex’s way of doing things. For instance, one of the things the boys and girls will learn is how to tie the necktie they will have to wear as part of their uniform.Both Apex and Laurel Oaks have their roots in a fellowship program through the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools, or BES, which mentors would-be charter school leaders in part by having them spend time working at other high-performing charter schools. Both Lewis and Laurel Oaks’ founder Shafeeq Samsid-Deen started as fellows, though only Lewis finished the two-year program. Three other charter school leaders in Baton Rouge were also BES fellows.Both Apex and Laurel Oaks are starting with one grade and adding a new grade every year. Apex plans to expand until it spans grades six to 12; its first graduating class won’t be until spring 2023. Laurel Oaks is starting with kindergarten and by 2024 will extend to eighth grade, a common grade configuration for a charter school.Apex said it’s reached its enrollment goal, after getting commitments from 120 students and has already had 96 students take pre-tests to gauge their academic level. Laurel Oaks is reporting 60 students enrolled but is hoping to enroll more than 70 by the start of school.At Apex, the college emphasis is unmistakable: Near the entrance, long lines of college pennants hang from the ceiling like stalactites.The goal at Laurel Oaks, Samsid-Deen said, is to have every student reach eighth grade with good enough grades to gain admittance to a public magnet school in Baton Rouge. He said he will also eventually hire a counselor to help students navigate the high school admissions process.“Our goal is to really tailor where they go to high school to places that have a track record of students going to college,” said Samsid-Deen.Lewis grew up in Baton Rouge, earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Southern University in 1996 and later a master’s in business administration from LSU. He became an advocate for school choice and for three years served as the state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options before deciding to form a charter school.Samsid-Deen in 2008 earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. After college, he joined the Teach for America program, landing in rural New Mexico. He went on to spend three years with New Mexico’s department of education, overseeing the development of a new teacher evaluation system, before deciding to start a charter school.The two schools have some commonalities. Both will teach computer coding from the get-go. Both have purchased relatively inexpensive Chromebook laptops for their students. Apex has enough laptops for all its students, while Laurel Oaks is supplying a smaller number.Apex is planning a more overt focus on STEM, short for science, math, technology and engineering. For instance, it’s launching a robotics team.The school won’t use a cafeteria, at least not right away. Students will eat breakfast and lunch in their homeroom, and teachers will rotate in and out through the day.“They won’t get to eat in the cafeteria until eighth grade,” Lewis said.Laurel Oaks, which has leased the first floor of the office building at 440 N. Foster Drive, is renovating a room to be used for a performing arts class that will double as a physical education class. The school will also have students learn a second language, Spanish, from the beginning, Samsid-Deen said.“I think we have a very innovative program, something that people can latch onto,” Samsid-Dean said.As Type 2 charters, these schools are allowed to attract students from across the state, not just East Baton Rouge Parish, which would be the case with other types of charters. Apex is the more visible of the two schools. Lewis said he has enrolled a number of students from the city of Baker, and even has one student coming from West Feliciana Parish and one from Livingston Parish.Lewis's calm, unflappable demeanor betrayed no nervousness about the start of school just around the corner. He said the school has already taken pains to get to know its students.“We've done visits with every kid at home or at school,” he said. "I feel like I know them already."

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