In Baton Rouge, a familiar story as school district fractures

This large school district’s future is uncertain as a growing state-run system takes on more schools and some residents plan to carve out a new school system within the existing district lines.

Which district am I talking about? No, it’s not Shelby County Schools- it’s the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.

Four hundred miles south of Memphis, some residents of Baton Rouge, La. are planning to create a new city called St. George that includes parts of the current city, largely in order to allow the creation of a brand new school district. Meanwhile, the state-run Recovery School District plans to begin running more low-performing schools within the Parish.

New School System

The new school district that would accompany the creation of St. George has been in the works for more than a year. Proponents of the group have formed a website called Local Schools for Local Children explaining why they think a smaller school district will benefit their children. Three other areas in the Parish – Zachary, Central, and Baker – have formed their own districts since 2003.

Though Baton Rouge has already had new districts break away, school officials are concerned about the financial implications of yet another new district. East Baton Rouge school officials said, for instance, that the legacy district was left with pension and building burdens from the first round of new school districts. One school official said that some teachers retired from the city school district and gained pensions, only to start work again at one of the newer school districts.

A recent report from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation highlighted negative financial implications of St. George on the city of Baton Rouge.

“What I’m worried about with all these choices and breakaways is that at the end of the day, if all this happens, it will bankrupt what’s left,” said Bernard Taylor, the superintendent of the East Baton Rouge district, last spring.

A history of fraught race relations undergirds the changes. The new city of St. George would be 70 percent white, while the City of Baton Rouge is 55 percent black, according to a report from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The new city also encompasses some of the more well-off parts of town.

Proponents of the new district say the focus on those issues is misleading and distracting, and that their concerns aren’t being heard by Baton Rouge’s city hall. They believe the smaller district will allow for better schools.

State-run District Expands

Meanwhile, several schools in the city have been targeted for takeover by the state-run Recovery School District, which oversees most schools in nearby New Orleans. The RSD, like Tennessee’s Achievement School District, takes over low-performing schools and has used chartering as a major way to improve their performance. The RSD was the first district of its kind.

Its role in Baton Rouge has been particularly controversial, as the RSD took over a handful of schools in the city several years ago and turned them over to charter operators – but those charters eventually floundered and are now directly run by the RSD. The RSD is now trying to court higher-performing charter operators to run its schools.

While advocates are hopeful that the new schools will help improve schools that have historically been low-performing, superintendent Taylor also expressed concerns about the RSD – and, indeed, maneuvered some programs around last spring in order to avoid having schools taken over.

“The district wants to reform ourselves, and we’re engaged in that work,” he said in an interview with Education Week last spring.

“I don’t know of any superintendent who wants to see [schools] taken over by an entity whose primary focus is not just the students in that area,” Taylor said.

Similar concerns have arisen in Memphis, where some parents and teachers have protested the state’s interventions. The ASD has engaged in a months-long community engagement process to address those concerns.

Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the RSD, said, “We don’t want to give up on bringing in empowering, higher-quality teachers and leaders just because the first group we tried weren’t of the ilk we need.”

Baton Rouge and Memphis

The connection between the Shelby County and East Baton Rouge is not just in those political parallels: As the RSD and ASD are both expanding, Baton Rouge found itself competing with Memphis for charter schools. Chris Meyer, the executive director of New Schools Baton Rouge, which recruits and supports new charter schools in the city, said that YES! Prep had visited both Memphis and Baton Rouge last year.

The ASD in Tennessee and RSD in Louisiana are “pushing each other to recruit the best,” said Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the Recovery School District.

This post just scratches the surface. For those interested in more, The Advocate in Baton Rouge has been following the schools and plans for a new city closely. This Education Week story from last spring also lays out some of the issues.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”