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East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Faces Outcry Over Whether To Start The School Year Early

Karen Gadbois

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board had already approved a calendar for the coming school year when Superintendent Sito Narcisse announced a proposal that would shorten summer vacation by roughly two weeks.

While some praised Narcisse for his bold action, he was also flooded with community criticism.

On Monday, nearly 600 teachers expressed their opposition by participating in a union-organized sickout.

Thursday night’s school board meeting included hours of public testimony both for and against the plan. Following public comments, board members decided not to offer a recommendation on the proposed calendar and said they needed more time to consider public feedback.

They’re set to vote on whether to accept the proposal, known as “Smart Start,” at a board meeting next week.

If approved, instructional staff would start the school year on July 19, two weeks earlier than planned. Students would return on July 28, 12 days earlier than planned.

Narcisse, who started as superintendent in January, has framed the early start as crucial to recovering student learning loss and providing school staff with additional professional development days.

More than 30 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish public school students are still learning exclusively online. During a brief presentation, Narcisse said the percentage of students earning failing grades has more than doubled this year.

At Thursday’s board meeting, teachers and parents argued that summer plans had already been set and that asking people to rearrange wasn’t just unreasonable, it was disrespectful.

In an interview with the Baton Rouge NBC affiliate Thursday morning, Narcisse, anticipating the comments, said he disagreed.

“The reality is adults are more resilient than children and we just are asking them to do a little bit more,” he said.

But teachers in East Baton Rouge said their resilience is waning. Many argued they need the full summer break to recover after an exhausting school year and the experience of living through the pandemic.

Fourth-grade teacher Cheryle Peters and her daughter Mia told the school board they were both desperate for a break and that cutting the summer short would be demoralizing.

“[My students are] trying but they’re tired,” Peters said. “I’m tired. Everybody is tired and we need a break.”

Peters said she also opposed the plan because of its one-size-fits-all approach.

“I know you’re trying to close those gaps, but we gotta make programs that are gonna address the gaps because every kid doesn’t have the same gap,” she said. “I’ve got some kids on a third-grade level, I’ve got some kids on a fifth-grade level. I’ve got some kids on a second-grade level. I’ve got some kids that can’t even count.”

While some parents, students and community members spoke in support of the earlier start, the majority of Thursday night’s comments were in opposition.

Teachers and parents cited a variety of reasons to keep the current calendar in place, including the logistical challenges of reopening schools earlier and the burden it would place on summer camps to reshuffle their schedules.

Several parents of students with special needs argued that the proposed calendar could actually hurt their children since it fails to account for their individualized education plans, which provide special services throughout the summer.

Another big source of criticism has been the proposal’s timing. Many have questioned the district’s decision to approve a calendar for the coming school year on March 19 and then call for a switch.

“We’re not playing free and loose with schedules and calendars,” school board member Mike Gaudet said Thursday night. “We were doing the best we could at the time we made the decisions.”

On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan directing more than $122 billion in relief to the nation’s K-12 schools. East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Associate Superintendent Adam Smith told board members the district met with State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley on March 30. Only then did they learn how much money they were set to receive. The next day, Narcisse made his announcement about Smart Start.

The district is set to receive $144.6 million from the federal act and will receive a portion of the funds totaling $28.9 million right away.

Smart Start has a $20 million price tag. In addition to starting the school year early, Narcisse said, the plan would also expand summer camp and enrichment opportunities for students. During the school year funds would also be used to expand math and literacy supports and hire additional nurses and social workers.

The proposal also includes a $1,300 stipend for teachers that totals an additional $9 million. That would be paid from the district’s general operating fund and not through federal funding.

Described as a hardship bonus, many teachers said the money should have been presented separately rather than as part of the plan. Board members offered preliminary support for the stipend Thursday night and could approve the bonus even if the new calendar or other aspects of Smart Start fail to pass.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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