After months of a nationwide search, interviews with finalists, and public debate, Baton Rouge finally has a new superintendent. We welcome Ms. Leslie Brown to Baton Rouge–her selection and first official day come not a moment too soon.
The East Baton Rouge Parish School System is at a critical juncture; Ms. Brown will need all of her 41 years of experience as an educator to navigate the challenges ahead. As a community, we also must come together to support her, offer counsel, and at times, guide her through these challenges, to achieve our shared vision of a Baton Rouge that gives every child a world-class education.
We offer five recommendations that will enable a strong start for the new administration and support the transformation of EBR:
- Prioritize student learning while keeping students, educators and families safe. In remarks since her selection, Ms. Brown rightfully named that the “health, safety, and emotional wellness” of Baton Rouge’s students, families, and teachers will be her top priority. That’s absolutely right. Successfully navigating a safe return to school, and adapting to spikes in COVID-19 cases, should be top of mind in decisions regarding the upcoming school year. Parents and teachers should be pleased to know that we have a superintendent who will be guided by data and facts when it comes to the virus. But we must also prioritize high quality instruction, whether conditions dictate virtual, in-person, or a hybrid approach. EBR is behind its neighboring districts, non-public, and charter schools as it failed to offer substantive learning opportunities for more than seven weeks last spring.
- Prioritize equity, especially as remote learning continues. In addition to struggling with instructional excellence last spring, EBR was comparatively slow to provide students with devices and roll out a remote learning curriculum this spring. Our kids – particularly our least-advantaged students – cannot afford to fall further behind their more affluent peers in neighboring districts. Our hope is that Ms. Brown draws on the lessons and experiences of other large districts who have had more success in implementing remote learning (Miami and New Orleans stand out as examples), and bring all stakeholders together to come up with solutions to make the coming year’s curriculum more robust.
- Navigate the coming budget challenge. While COVID-19 has hit local economies hard, reducing tax revenue and forcing cuts to public school districts across the country, EBR was already facing fiscal challenges and indecision on its loss of student enrollment to successful charter schools and large footprint of underutilized and aging facilities in the northern part of the parish. Ms. Brown will need to find a way to avoid damaging cuts, while also not abandoning her more ambitious initiatives. This will not be easy, and will require creativity, flexibility, and likely some difficult decisions. Those of us in the nonprofit space stand ready to support as she navigates these challenging budget waters.
- Bring Baton Rouge together. Over the past several weeks, debates over renaming Lee High School and the superintendent selection process have been starkly divided on racial lines. Baton Rouge needs more than a great educator in our next superintendent – we need a healer, a leader who is willing to listen, challenge their own biases, and move our city toward a more inclusive future. Ms. Brown has demonstrated those traits in the interview process. Now it’s time to put them to work.
- Seize the moment – don’t just be a caretaker. The coming school year will be challenging, and it will be easy to lose sight of the big picture as we navigate the uncertain day-to-day life during a pandemic. But we cannot compromise on the progress we’ve made as a district in embracing high quality charter schools as part of the solution and holding school leaders accountable for results, or fail to think big and offer bold solutions for the next phase of work. We have a tremendous opportunity to make Baton Rouge a shining example for urban districts across the country, but now we need to seize the moment.
Despite all the challenges we face, this is an exciting time for those of us who care deeply about Baton Rouge’s schools. After a yearlong search, we finally have a leader at the helm whose background and candidacy offer EBR maybe its last best opportunity to transform and deliver exceptional opportunities to students. We look forward to working with her to take our schools and our city to the next level.