By Charles Lussier
Public school options have long been limited for those who live in the southeastern corner of East Baton Rouge Parish. And when it comes to high schools for those who reside south of Interstate 10, the options are fewer still.
But that may be changing. Several proposals have emerged in the past two weeks to add high schools to existing schools in that area or to start new schools entirely.
Two ideas were unveiled when the School Board held a special Saturday retreat earlier this month.
One proposal is for a high school to be run by Mayfair Lab School, which would begin adding ninth-graders in fall 2019. Like the current Mayfair, it would be a selective magnet school and be constructed somewhere on the 12 acres at 9880 Hyacinth Ave. or at another location. It would educate about 400 students, making it much smaller than other public high schools in town.
A second proposal calls for a neighborhood high school serving south Baton Rouge. One possible location is Arlington Preparatory Academy, an alternative school that operates on 15 acres at 931 Dean Lee Drive, less than two miles south of LSU. The plans for this proposed school are more preliminary.
Superintendent Warren Drake is recommending the first proposal involving Mayfair and wants the board to consider the other as well.
In both cases, construction would be funded by a 1-cent sale tax that is up for renewal in 2018. School officials have just begun discussions about what projects to fund, assuming the tax is renewed. Construction at either proposed school would begin no earlier than 2019.
“Many of the ideas floated during the discussion at the board retreat will need further exploration to determine feasibility and any potential consequences to other sites,” said Adonica Duggan, a spokeswoman for the school system.
Meanwhile, eight groups on Feb. 24 turned in applications seeking to start charter schools — public schools run by private groups via charters, or contracts — in East Baton Rouge Parish. Two of the proposals call for opening high schools that would serve the southeast Baton Rouge area.
Scottsdale, Ariz.-based BASIS Charter Schools wants to open a school near the new Woman’s Hospital off Airline Highway near Stumberg Lane. BASIS’s Baton Rouge school would start in fall 2018 with grades kindergarten to six, growing a grade at a time all the way to 12th grade. The school would not reach ninth grade until fall 2021 at earliest.
In addition, Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School, a middle school, is looking to expand into high school grades starting with a ninth grade in fall 2018 and growing a grade a time until 12th grade. The charter school, which opened in 2009, for years has looked into starting a high school on its property at 7600 Boone Drive, but its proposal says the high school’s location has yet to be determined.
BASIS Schools, which operates 21 charters schools, most in Arizona, comes with an enviable track record and with prominent community supporters. Its schools have gained international recognition, with its pupils outscoring students from the top nations in the world on exams.
Those results caught the attention of the nonprofit group New Schools for Baton Rouge, which recruited BASIS to come to the Pelican State. BASIS originally planned to apply for a charter a year ago, but held off in order to do more work gaining community support. It is planning an informational meeting on March 21 at Woman’s Hospital.
Peter Bezanson, chief executive officer of BASIS.ed, said the organization originally looked at locating closer to downtown Baton Rouge but an opportunity emerged to build on land near the new Woman’s Hospital that was too good to pass up.
The decision to start with just grades kindergarten to six and grow from there reflects an assessment of the local market for a school like BASIS. Bezanson said the school is open admissions but is not for everyone.
“We want to be there for the people who want us,” he said. “We have an academic curriculum that’s filled with joy, but it’s hard. We’re a tough school.”
Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter took control of the former Kenilworth Middle School in 2009 after years of chronic low academic performance by the public school.
Organizers were natives of Turkey with backgrounds in education, some of them inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a controversial Islamic scholar living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey considers Gülen a fugitive and accuses him of an attempted coup. School officials deny the relationship to Gülen goes any deeper than him being a source of inspiration, especially in his desire to expand quality education.
Kenilworth has had its ups and downs academically. In 2013, it improved to a C grade, but later slipped back to a D where it remains.
The school also gained notoriety after federal authorities raided 7600 Boone Drive in December 2013. The Advocate later reported that the feds were targeting financial records of nine companies that did business with the school. Two years later, authorities dropped the probe without bringing charges. Throughout, they would say little to nothing about what they were investigating.
Mark Lambert, a spokesman for Kenilworth, said school leaders wanted to clear the school’s name before seeking to expand.
“The parents for several years have been asking us if we would start a high school,” Lambert said. “They were saying, ‘We don’t have any good choices and we like what happens with Kenilworth.’”
The dearth of schools in much of south Baton Rouge was one of the many sparks of the movement to create a city of St. George in the incorporated part of the parish. At one point, St. George backers promised to build as many as six new schools in the area.
Most of the parish south of I-10 has lacked a nearby neighborhood high school since Lee High School closed in 2009. Lee High reopened in 2012 with just ninth-graders from its old attendance zone. But in 2013, Lee converted into a dedicated magnet school.
High school students living south of I-10 are split three ways, assigned to McKinley, Tara or Woodlawn high schools. Unlike Tara and Woodlawn, McKinley is located south of I-10, but its location just north of LSU is distant from much of the rest of south Baton Rouge. McKinley and Woodlawn have a C letter grades while Tara has a D.
Many families in the area have long opted out to attend private schools, and more recently, charter schools.
Mayfair Lab School has been making a play for some of them to come back. Developed in partnership with LSU Lab School, Mayfair Lab opened in 2013 with students in grades kindergarten to three. The selective magnet school immediately earned an A letter grade and has never looked back.