by Megan Brann
The East Baton Rouge school system grew at an average rate of 4.6 percent, while Louisiana’s average growth was 3 percent, the BRAC report said. The BRAC acts as an advocate for policy change and economic development in the Baton Rouge area through research and other methods. The improved district grade can be attributed to fluxes in administration and other district changes.
“East Baton Rouge schools have seen a lot of changes in terms of administration. We’re hopeful that these trends continue,” Liz Cooke, BRAC policy and research project manager, said.
The school system could see countless changes just by looking at the people in charge. Half of all East Baton Rouge principals have worked over 30 years, making them eligible for retirement, Cooke said.
The district continues to work with the ‘strategic plan’ created by a 33-member committee made up of local business leaders and experts. The plan developed over a year of district data-analysis. Newly-hired Superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor intends to use the outlined strategies to reach the plan’s goal.
“The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will lead EBRPSS to the 2020 goal of being a top 10 school system by maintaining excellence and accelerating student achievement as the priority focus of all governance policies, accountability mechanisms, and financial resource allocations,” the drafted document said.
Taylor has already affected the parish with his short time in the position, David Tatman, East Baton Rouge Parish school board president, said.
“He has been innovative and dynamic in his approach to creating the family of schools plan and has worked hard to form partnerships with the community and the Department of Education,” Tatman said.
The BRAC is working with the school board to develop and implement the strategic plan. The issues addressed in the initiatives include ‘careful’ support of high-performing charter schools, placing high-stakes on standardized tests, increasing teacher accountability based on performance, attracting qualified teachers with market-based compensation, strengthening investments in principal recruitment and finding alternative methods of funding.
“We are interested in economic development. One of the main things that come with economic development is having a good public education,” Cooke said.
Tatman said work on the plan is not yet complete, but it has been a great opportunity for the community to come together to focus on education.
“We are in the final stages of refining our final draft of the strategic plan and hope to have it approved this spring. We are hopeful that we can integrate the core elements of our strategic plan into a comprehensive road map to move our district forward,” Tatman said.
The state measures high schools differently and the government has altered the school accountability system. The parish schools are letter-graded primarily from student performance on standardized tests, a change made in 2011 from a ranking system.
East Baton Rouge schools also have a disadvantage in the grading method considering the district size greatly outnumbers any other in the Baton Rouge area. East Baton Rouge manages 96 schools, while Livingston, the second largest district, has 39.
Even with the overall school’s grade improvement, test scores and graduation rates continue with modest to no improvement. ACT scores remain relatively flat-lined for the last 5 years. Three out of 10 students in the Baton Rouge area attend ‘D’-graded or failing schools. That number doubles to 6 out of 10 students in East Baton Rouge schools.
“To BRAC’s concern, in terms of dropouts, the cohort dropout rate in EBRPSS was approximately 20 percent in 2011, meaning only eight out of ten ninth graders were still in school by their expected graduation date,” the report said.
In 2010-2011, the number of students at one of these categorized schools was 7 out of 10 students. While there has been improvement, the majority of students are still getting a “substandard” education, according to BRAC analysis.
Taylor intends on instituting a plethora of reform techniques outside of the ‘strategic plan.’ This includes an idea, first discussed in November to the district, of eradicating “attendance zones,” or geographical regions that require students to attend certain schools.
Taylor targets this plan at consistently low-performing schools close to joining the Recovery School District. These are schools that must be taken over by the state due to their worsening grades.
Taylor continues to hold forums at affected school districts to ensure community input.
The community may be providing input for the student’s schools, but some Baton Rouge residents feel “home” issues as the most important factor, according to a BRAC research series released in 2011. The report stated 40 percent of student achievement relied on parental involvement and moral principles taught at home.
“I think that parental involvement is critical in the success of our districts. Schools with strong parental involvement perform better. We need to work to provide more opportunities for parents to engage in their children’s education,” Tatman said. “The more involved the parents are, the more engagement we will have from our entire community.”
“There are so many factors that go into improving schools,” Cooke said. “Hopefully, we’ll see these trends continue.”
Tatman attributes the district improvement to those dedicated to the cause of serving young people.
“Public education faces tremendous challenges and our team of professionals have met those challenges and excelled at improving education in our district.”