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Baton Rouge Charter Schools Use Community Engagement, Report Says

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Baton Rouge, La., schools found out that it's difficult for groups with no school experience to take over schools quickly.

So, an organization now working in Baton Rouge is trying a different approach to launching charter schools. New Schools for Baton Rouge  starts by working with community members, finding out their desires, and spending years developing relationships before even opening schools.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education released an April 7 report that explores how the non-profit organization is using community engagement as the foundation of charter schools in Baton Rouge. New Schools for Baton Rouge, or NSBR, started in 2012 to create private and charter school options in underserved neighborhoods with large African-American populations, according to the report.

So far, the organization has helped launch seven charter schools. The effort is new: The first schools opened this school year. But researchers say lessons can be learned from the early experience.

"Even though the schools are wrapping up their first year, the people who are running the schools have been at this for a couple of years and have ties to the areas," said Christine Campbell, the policy director and senior research analyst for CPRE. "It's much less of a rush job and much more trying to fit and preparing for the opening."

The city's schools have faced challenges for years. The East Baton Rouge Parish district was the subject of a desegregation lawsuit from 1956 to 2003, and federal oversight ended in 2007, according to a 2013 Education Week story.

The state-run Recovery School District took over 11 schools from 2007 to 2010 and turned them over to local organizations, which had a few months to transform them into charter schools, according to the CPRE report. All the groups returned the charters to the state within a few years.

NSBR began with conversations with community and faith leaders, who developed a compact of how they would operate. Many of the initial meetings, including with parents, district, and reform advocates, showed a disconnect, Campbell said.

While parents said they most wanted hugs and smiles for their children in a tidy school, reform advocates talked about high test scores and college. "Neither side doesn't believe (in) those things, but what mattered most was really different," Campbell said.

Community members and parents have a say in which operators are selected to run their charters, and they have strict criteria for which ones will be considered. Operators are vetted for how well they fit into the community and how they can tailor education for Baton Rouge, according to the report. (Find out how another charter operator, Rocketship, involves parents in the teacher hiring process.)

The process can take years. One potential operator started meeting with Baton Rouge community members in 2012 to plan for a possible 2017 opening. 

In addition to learning from past lessons in Baton Rouge, the group has looked at problems faced in other communities where parents protested when there was a top-down approach and failing schools were closed.

"This is a really tough issue, and I don't think there's a lot of models," Campbell said about a full-city approach. "You can't hang the 'mission accomplished' sign yet, but it's definitely worth watching."

CPRE is a research and policy analysis center based at the University of Washington.

Related story: Baton Rouge Seeks to Avoid State Takeover

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

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