Four Baton Rouge schools will add magnet programs thanks to new federal grant
The Advocate. Charles Lussier. September 28, 2017.

Belaire High School and three of its feeder schools have been awarded a federal grant that will pay them nearly $15 million over the next five years to launch new STEM-themed magnet programs.

This money will increase the number of East Baton Rouge Parish public schools offering magnet programs from 23 to 27, with Baton Rouge Magnet High being the most well-known.

Belaire High, located at 121121 Tams Drive, as well as feeder schools, Park Forest and Villa Del Rey elementaries and Park Forest Middle, plan to launch their new programs perhaps as early as November.

The school system announced Thursday morning that it won the grant offered by Magnet Schools Assistance Program, part of the U.S. Department of Education, and that it was one of 32 successful applicants out of 69 reviewed. The school system was notified Tuesday that it had won. It has fallen short when it applied for this same grant in 2004, 2013 and 2016.

The grant will pay out about $3 million a year for five years.

Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs, said she's learned a bit each time she's applied for this grant and used that this time.

"We also had a lot of support from the governor's office, the Metro Council and parents on down," Porter said. 

The initial plan was to wait until spring to start the programs, but Porter said she's now looking to open them to students earlier, as soon as November.

"If we start with this right away, we can start working out the kinks," Porter explained.

The money from the grant, which will be available starting Oct. 1, will allow the school system to hire two support personnel at each school right away as well as a "promotions specialist" to help recruit students.

The schools are being added to the list that the district promotes as part of its annual recruiting drive for its magnet programs. This year's initial application period for the 2018-19 school year will run from Oct. 30 to Dec. 4, with the annual Magnet Mania event taking place Oct. 28 at Baton Rouge Community College.

Belaire High and Park Forest Middle both have F letter grades, while Park Forest and Villa Del Rey elementary schools have D letter grades. None currently have magnet programs, and the schools are some distance away from other district magnet programs.

According to the news release, key goals of the grant include raising these schools to A or B letter grades after five years and that all magnet students at the school will be at or above grade level in reading and math by then.

Magnets use the allure of specialized programming to try to create racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.

Dawn Collins, who represents the Belaire area on the parish School Board, said more than a third of the children in her district opt to attend schools outside the area. She said the new magnet programs will be able to better compete with other district — as well as new charter — schools opening nearby. But she said it goes further.

“It’s a little booster shot,” she said, “It means these schools are feeling supported and feeling adequately resourced to move forward with a vision that they already had for their schools.”

The new magnets are all based in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. They involve courses in renewable energy, computer science, entertainment technology and film, and digital animation.

Porter said renewable energy will be a running theme at all four schools, and they all operate under the umbrella of what the school system is calling Project EXPLORE, short for Encompassing Exciting Program Learning Opportunities for a Rewarding Education.

The STEM focus is not accidental. Porter said there's research to back up the idea that STEM will improve academic achievement.

The new magnets at the four schools will not use test scores and grades as selection criteria, which is the norm in most East Baton Rouge magnet programs. Instead, the schools will employ less restrictive criteria such as requiring portfolios of student work or sit-down interviews. In addition, students will have to maintain their grades to stay in the programs. 

Porter said students who advance quickly in certain subjects will be able to take classes with older students, meaning there will likely be some multi-age classrooms.

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