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Charter Schools: Getting Parent Buy-In For A New Alternative In Baton Rouge

Amy Jeffries
Southern Education Desk
Al Barone recruits students for Up Elementary in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The big push for charter schools in Louisiana started after Hurricane Katrina. The state's Recovery School District took over most of the public schools in New Orleans, and quickly issued charters.

With charter school enrollment up to nearly 3 million nationwide last year, Louisiana was still among the states adding the most students.

The Recovery School District has moved onto Baton Rouge. But, without a hurricane scattering teachers and students, charters really have to get parents to buy into the alternative they're selling. As Amy Jeffries reports for the Southern Education Desk, it starts with pounding the pavement.

It's three weeks before school starts. Al Barone — call him "Big Al" — is weaving his way through an affordable housing complex, aiming to fill the last slots at University Prep Elementary, also known as "UP."

"I'm looking for kindergartners and first graders!" he says. "UP Elementary!"

UP opened last year with a state charter and just kindergarten. This year it's added first grade. Eventually it'll be a kindergarten through 5th grade school.

Behind one door Big Al finds Nicole Chester, whose grandson has already been enrolled at the nearby public school in the parish district.

"Are they gonna be reading by the middle of kindergarten?" he asks. "That's what these did last year."

Big Al pulls out his favorite recruiting tool: a book full of little kid writings by last year's kindergartners.

Chester is interested, but she's got questions. Is there a bus? Would she have to buy a different uniform?

"And what's the colors of the school?" she asks.

"Light blue shirt, dark blue pants," Big Al answers. He doesn't get a yes. But he says he'll come by again to try to seal the deal.

The state issued a charter for another school in this part of Baton Rouge, Dalton Elementary, in 2009. Lynette Allen walked in out of pure curiosity.

Allen raised her six kids around here, though she bused them across town for school, and that's where she'd been a volunteer.

"Then I got this longing for my community."

She got a job as Dalton's community liaison. She's there at 6 a.m. when it opens up each morning. Her phone is always on so parents can call.

But she has been one of few constants. The school's current operator, recruited from Los Angeles, is the third in six years. Allen's worked with four or five principals in that time. Teachers have come and gone.

"When you have something that's not stable, it's hard to get buy-in," Allen says.


And it makes Baton Rouge state Representative Ted James very skeptical of charter operators.


They're not jumping here because they care so much about this community," James says. "If Mississippi passed the laws that we have to make it so easy for charter schools to open, they'd be running to Mississippi. If it happened in Texas, they'll be running to Texas."


With turnover and rapid expansion, a third of the charters in Louisiana, and half the charters in Baton Rouge alone, have been open for just three years or less. And that means there's not much data on whether students are performing any better.


"The push cards, the radio ads, they all sound and look great," James says. "But they don't have the same level of accountability as our local district."


Along with solid academics, Lynette Allen says its relationships that make or break a school. Without a good rapport, if a student is acting out, a teacher won't get support from the parent they need to handle it.


"But if you've established a relationship with that parent, Mom is coming," says Allen. "And Little Johnny won't go crazy anymore."


The proof those essential relationships are taking hold will be whether students enroll and if they stay. UP hasn't released its figures yet, but Dalton says 96 percent of its 400-plus students from last year are returning, and enrollment is up to 500.

This report was supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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