An Educator’s View: Amid a Global Crisis, Education in Baton Rouge Is at a Crossroads. Fortunately, Students and Parents Have More Options Than Ever

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Many school systems across the nation are still deciding whether in-person learning is worth the risks posed by COVID-19. After a tumultuous year and a half, Baton Rouge has decided that while the health risks posed by COVID-19 are significant, the harm caused by continued virtual learning is an even greater risk to the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of children. Consistent with federal guidance, our schools are prioritizing a return to in-person learning for the vast majority of students. However, in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, much remains uncertain about the coming school year. How will educators balance the competing demands of continued vigilance around health and safety with the dire need for learning acceleration? As a result, families in our community are left to grapple with a new question: Whom do I trust to meet the needs of my children after a year-long global crisis?

When schools shut down, parents became full-time educators in addition to full-time caregivers. Shouldering the enormous responsibility for teaching their children showed them that large, bureaucratic systems might not be best at meeting their children’s needs, and they began exploring other options. Now, as the city prepares to enter the next school year, unprecedented numbers of families are acting on this new knowledge by choosing a school that utilizes flexibility and autonomy to be more responsive to individual student needs. Fortunately, there are new school opportunities to meet the desires of families in Baton Rouge.

The pandemic marks a turning point for the community. For decades, Baton Rouge education depicted a tale of two cities. Wealthy and well-informed families enrolled their children in expensive private or selective magnet schools, while students already facing substantial obstacles were relegated to underperforming ones. At one point, more than 90 percent of students living in the northern part of the parish’s largest school system were zoned to a school rated failing by the state. Now, as schools and families prepare for a new school year in the midst of a global crisis, education in Baton Rouge is at a crossroads, and families are refusing to keep enrolling their children in failing schools or those unresponsive to their needs.

Breaking from the norm to take the road less traveled would not be possible if that road were not already built. Over the past decade, New Schools for Baton Rouge has laid the groundwork for the evolution of this tale of two education systems into a system that works for everyone. Established by community leaders to partner with and develop a set of new, high-quality education options, New Schools for Baton Rouge has launched more than two dozen schools that this fall will enroll approximately 10,000 students. These schools have waitlists and, based on the last round of state assessment results, boast the fastest academic growth for students in the state compared to any other subgroup of schools, including magnet and traditional district-run. During the pandemic, these schools adapted to be responsive to the trauma and limited instruction students experienced the spring prior.

Enrollment trends in Baton Rouge illustrate what happens when a large system is unable to adapt nimbly, as many public charter and private schools can. Data from spring 2021 shows that families are increasingly choosing a school for their children. While enrollment in Baton Rouge public schools remains stable from last year, there is an enormous shift in where students attend public school. Enrollment in district-run, non-magnet schools is down 3 percent since last year and more than 15 percent over the last decade. Enrollment in public charter schools, which are open to any student, is up more than 2½ times over the last decade, with nearly a quarter of all public school students in Baton Rouge now attending a public charter school. As of spring 2021, 45 percent of all Baton Rouge students served by public schools are now exercising some form of choice, via either magnet or charter schools.

New Schools for Baton Rouge partners with schools that reflect our city’s revolution in making our school system one that prioritizes all students equitably. Baton Rouge is proof that parents from every walk of life will enroll their children in high-quality schools when given the opportunity. Three in particular illustrate the new, diverse options available to Baton Rouge families and how those partnerships support students and families through normal and difficult times alike.

  • BASIS, an internationally ranked charter school network dedicated to providing a rigorous, world-class education, operates two Baton Rouge campuses. To recover learning loss caused by the pandemic, BASIS schools utilize academic data to shape learning plans based on individual student needs, has hired reading and other academic specialists in order to offer more support to the students who need it most and is utilizing federal emergency dollars to create a math and literacy lab.
  • The Emerge School for Autism is designed specifically to meet the needs of students with autism, enabling them to overcome challenges and lead fulfilling lives. As students with autism are particularly sensitive to disruptions to established routines, the pandemic created more acute distress for this particular student population. In response, Emerge developed a summer program for students and parents focused on recovery and stability for students who already face substantial barriers. Its unique partnership with a local hospital also allowed it to remain a constant source of support for families throughout the pandemic.
  • GEO Academies launched its first Baton Rouge school in 2015. The school network now runs three campuses, each a beacon of support for underserved students in the community through a small-group instruction model. GEO high school students take free college courses, and many earn an associate’s degree before graduating high school, empowering them with credentials and a financial leg up on college and career pathways.

Baton Rouge families have more options than ever before, but the work is far from over. At New Schools for Baton Rouge, we remain stalwart in our mission to partner with the community and local district to provide families with great school options for their children. As more families pursue schools that meet their needs — especially when, because of the pandemic, these needs are more complex than ever — Baton Rouge comes closer to eliminating its two-tiered system of limited opportunity, transforming education in the community so all students can fulfill their potential and contribute to a thriving city and prosperous state.

Chris Meyer is CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge

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