Friday, January 30, 2009

Board approves state takeover of ten schools

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's education board agreed Jan. 14 to a state takeover of 10 poor-performing public schools in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, despite fierce opposition from local education and community leaders who said they could improve the schools themselves.

After heated debate and a nearly six-hour hearing, members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a plan to wrest control of eight Baton Rouge and two Caddo Parish schools from their local school districts, beginning July 1.

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek recommended the move, saying it was needed to improve performance and better educate the 4,500 students who attend the low-performing schools. Pastorek said he intends to turn the schools into independently run charter schools.

"This is a chronic, severe failure of the public education system to properly educate our children," Pastorek told BESE members.

Pastorek's plan, which is supported by Gov. Bobby Jindal, was approved by a BESE committee and must be approved by the board in a final vote before it can take effect. But all of the 11-member board voted in the committee meeting, so Thursday's approval was considered a formality.

The issue sharply divided board members — and drew a packed crowd of about 350 people to the meeting, a majority of whom loudly opposed a state takeover.

Critics questioned whether schools currently under state control have shown enough improvement and whether the state will be shifting schools to unproven charter school models that will dismantle traditional public education.

Superintendents and school board members from both East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes said they have their own ideas for correcting school failures, and they argued that local communities were in the best position to understand the needs of their schools and their students.

East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent Charlotte Placide said she has improvement plans for the failing schools that would rehabilitate the schools in her district by turning some into charter schools, lengthening school days at others and changing leadership. She said several schools targeted for takeover have improved with changes already made.

"Are we where we need to be? No, but we are making progress," Placide said.

Caddo Parish education leaders asked for time for their recently hired superintendent, Gerald Dawkins, to make the changes he's proposed for schools.

"It's incredibly mean-spirited and irresponsible of you to not give this man an opportunity," said Jackie Lansdale, president of the Caddo Federation of Teachers.

Supporters of a takeover said the local school districts have known since the start of Louisiana's school accountability system a decade ago that consistently failing schools were vulnerable to state takeover. They said they tired of local school district leaders asking for more time to make improvements while the schools continued to fail.

"I want you to tell the kids who can't read and can't write we're moving with too much haste," said BESE member Chas Roemer of Baton Rouge. "I say we're not moving fast enough."

The schools slated for takeover have student populations that are largely black and poor, where at least 80 percent of students performed below their grade levels and a quarter of the teachers leave each year.

The state already runs 71 public schools through the Recovery School District, which includes 66 in New Orleans, four in Baton Rouge and one in Pointe Coupee Parish, according to the state education department. When the state takes control of a school, the local school district loses money.

Thirty-three failing public schools were eligible for a state takeover, because they have been deemed failing in the state education accountability system for four years in a row.

Besides the 10 planned for takeover, Pastorek's plan calls for state supervision of improvement plans for the 23 other failing schools in 11 parishes, but not direct state control. Those schools are in Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, East Carroll, Franklin, Madison, Rapides, Richland, St. Helena, St. James and St. Landry parishes.

For those schools, the Recovery School District would draw up proposed changes in leadership, curriculum and financing that would have to be approved by the local school boards.

If those plans aren't approved, the state could then take over the schools. If the schools don't improve after a year with the changes, the state could still take control of them.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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