January 5, 2015

New Schools for Baton Rouge forging ahead with charter push

-Charles Lussier, The Advocate Launched three years ago with an ambitious education agenda, New Schools for Baton Rouge is finally beginning to live up to its name.The politically connected nonprofit helped underwrite four new schools that began operation in August. It is supporting three more schools set to open next August, has three more on track to start in 2016 and is recruiting yet more schools.Most are charter schools — public schools run by private organizations under charters, or contracts. However, at least two schools in the New Schools pipeline are private schools that plan to make use of publicly financed vouchers to cover student tuition and fees.Supporters of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system have criticized such efforts, saying they drain money from traditional public schools and end up benefiting unaccountable private organizations. It’s a debate that raged during the most recent parish School Board elections and is the subject of heated litigation.Chris Meyer, president and chief executive officer of New Schools for Baton Rouge, says the debate should be focused elsewhere.“I’d like to see a conversation about great schools rather than a conversation about charter schools and whose money is whose,” Meyer said.Formed in late 2011 by leaders of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the New Schools group set a goal of bringing “great schools” to 12,000 children by the year 2017. That’s roughly how many children were attending public schools that were rated D or F in north Baton Rouge at the time.The organization is 11 percent of the way to reaching its goal. About 1,300 students were enrolled at its four up-and-running schools as of early September. However, those schools are expanding and several approved schools have yet to open.New Schools for Baton Rouge is modeled after a similar group called New Schools for New Orleans. That organization has helped shape the Crescent City’s post-Katrina shift from a traditional public school district to one dominated by independent charter schools.The idea behind such organizations is to attract and foster high-quality charter school management organizations.The catalyst for New Schools for Baton Rouge was what has become known as the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone, which is concentrated in north Baton Rouge.The zone was the brainchild of State Schools Superintendent John White. White drew on the state’s experience in New Orleans to remake the state’s first failed charter school experiment in Baton Rouge, which had been done under the aegis of the state’s Recovery School District, or RSD.New Schools has sought to identify groups with track records willing to run schools to supercharge the education of predominantly poor, predominantly black children who live in north Baton Rouge.Meyer said New Schools has raised $20 million so far toward its $30 million fundraising goal. The schools so far haven’t needed the level of financial support initially thought so the money raised thus far has proven sufficient, he said.During its first 18 months of operation which ended in September 2013, New Schools reported to the IRS that it had raised a total of $5.8 million and spent about $1.9 million up to that point.New Schools hired Meyer as its first president and chief executive officer in early 2012. As a former state education administrator who worked for White and White’s predecessor, Paul Pastorek, Meyer’s ideas about education reform hew closely to White’s.The Achievement Zone called for forming independent schools that would control their own hiring, transportation, finances and various back office functions, with little to no role for a traditional Central Office.The zone is based in seven north Baton Rouge buildings controlled by the RSD. All seven formerly were homes to neighborhood schools run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system but which the state took over for chronic low academic performance.New Schools’ charge has been to help find folks to run new schools in those spaces. In August 2013, it announced its first six recruits: Celerity Educational Group, Collegiate Academies, Democracy Prep, Family Urban Schools of Excellence or FUSE, KIPP New Orleans and YES Prep Public Schools.“These are the IBMs of the charter school space,” Meyer said at the time.New Schools is giving these charter management organizations millions of dollars to help offset startup and other costs. For instance, in mid-December, it announced it was giving New York City-based Democracy Prep $1 million to start as many as three schools in north Baton Rouge that would serve up to 1,500 students. Its first school, an elementary, is slated to open in August in the former Prescott Middle School, which is currently empty.Celerity, based in Los Angeles, came first. It has taken over two elementary schools — Dalton and Lanier — and Crestworth Middle school.Lanier was originally slated to be run by Hartford, Connecticut-based FUSE, but Celerity agreed in July, barely a month before the start of school, to take over Lanier as well. FUSE imploded after its founder Michael Sharpe was found to have lied on his résumé and failed to disclose a past felony conviction for embezzlement.New Orleans-based Collegiate Academies, originally slated to move into closed Istrouma High next fall, has pushed back its start date until fall 2016, while KIPP and Yes Prep are still working out their Baton Rouge plans, Meyer said.New Schools also is underwriting a handful of other entrepreneurs who are being trained as part of the Boston-basedBuilding Excellent Schools fellowship. Their schools are not receiving the level of support that established charter management organizations like Democracy Prep are getting, but Meyer said, New Schools will offer limited ongoing support to the home-grown charters.“We’re obviously committed to helping the fellows hit their growth targets,” Meyer saidUP Elementary, located on the campus of Glen Oaks Middle School, is the first such school to come out of the gate. Itopened in August with only kindergartners, but will expand by one grade per year until it reaches fifth grade. UP’s founder is Meghan Turner.Next fall, two more Building Excellent Schools fellows, Chloe Wiley and Kathryn Rice, will be joining Turner at Glen Oaks Middle. Wiley’s school, Baton Rouge Bridge Academy, will have the same grade configuration as Turner’s. Baton Rouge College Prep is starting with fifth grade and will add a grade at a time until it reaches 12th grade.New Schools also is recruiting private religious organizations that focus on educating children from families mired in poverty. Chicago-based Christo Rey Network is trying to line up businesses willing to hire students for internships for a high school that would start in 2016.Meyer said he expects New Schools later this month to announce its support for another private school group, Hope Christian Schools, based in Milwaukee, which also is looking at a 2016 start date for a new school.New Schools also is courting a variety of other established school groups.‘We’re probably looking at 10 schools right now, and we’re actively recruiting two,” Meyer said.On the active list is Tuscon, Arizona-based BASIS Schools, which specializes in high performing high schools. The other group being actively recruited is San Antonio, Texas-based Great Hearts Academies, which focuses on a classical, liberal arts curriculum, Meyer said.One impediment to New Schools’ growth plans is a shortage of suitable buildings. The seven RSD facilities are all older buildings in various stages of disrepair. RSD and the parish school system have spent years feuding over who is responsible for paying the cost of fixing up these buildings.Meyer said he is developing plans to raise money privately to make sure that the facilities for the new schools coming to Baton Rouge are in good repair.“We need to think through a private sector solution that allows us to have great school facilities,” he said.Meyer said the initial charter schools supported by New Schools are of a type that arguably limits leaders to facilities under the control of the Recovery School District.But, he said, there are other types of charters avenues available, and there’s always the chance a newly-elected East Baton Rouge School Board could look more favorably on charter school proposals brought before it.

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