Lee High School will make an impact

With three academies and startup feel, new Lee High could draw gifted students away from Baton Rouge college prep high schools

College preps eyeing effect on future

The Advocate

October 19, 2015

The marketplace of Baton Rouge public high schools for students on a college track is poised to become more competitive, as Lee High more than doubles in size and returns next year to its historic home on Lee Drive and a $54.7 million new campus.

The new Lee High, which opens in August, could draw away students from all college prep high schools in Baton Rouge, just as Baton Rouge Magnet High has for years.

Like Baton Rouge Magnet, Lee High is now a magnet school with selective admission requirements. The two schools also share the same principal, Nan McCann.

The impact of the new Lee High could be especially pronounced at McKinley High, and to a lesser extent at Woodlawn High:

McKinley and Woodlawn have prominent gifted programs, but combined, those tracks educate only about 400 students. That’s a third of the size of the new Lee, which will have a total capacity of about 1,200 students and has the property to grow larger still.

McKinley and Woodlawn currently enroll 300 and 100 students, respectively, who live in the Lee attendance zone. Students who live in that zone, now dubbed a priority zone, get top preference for admittance to Lee, as long as they have high enough grades and do well enough on a standardized test.

“A lot of schools are concerned about Lee High, public schools and private,” said Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. “It’s one of the most talked about new schools coming online.”

Lee High, which currently has 460 students at its temporary location, is adding another 675 slots in three grades next year. Families began completing online applications for Lee and other Baton Rouge magnet schools on Oct. 12 and can continue applying through Dec. 5.

Porter said that Baton Rouge Magnet is getting the most applicants so far, but Lee High is generating strong interest as well.

Lee has the potential to appeal to students in private high schools just as Baton Rouge Magnet does. In the past, Baton Rouge Magnet High has been the first — and often only — Baton Rouge public school choice for most private school applicants. Porter said she expects to see many of those applicants now make Lee their first or second choice.

Lee High is not the only college prep competitor on the horizon. Arizona-based BASIS Schools has announced plans to launch as many as five schools in Louisiana, including one in Baton Rouge in 2017 or 2018. The for-profit charter school network, which was recruited to Louisiana by the nonprofit group New Schools for Baton Rouge, is planning to apply for a charter from the state this spring.

BASIS schools, among other things, are known for their heavy emphasis on science and math in middle grades, as well as shepherding students through Advanced Placement courses and onto selective colleges. But a high school likely won’t be offered right away, as the company typically begins with grades kindergarten through eight and adds on later.

Gifted competition Gifted students are particularly prized by schools because they bring with them high test scores and often land scholarships and win awards.

For years, the gifted programs at McKinley and Woodlawn high schools have lost hundreds of such students to the allure of Baton Rouge Magnet High. That 87-year-old high school has almost 1,500 students and recently won its third national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award.

About 330 students identified as gifted now spend their days at Baton Rouge Magnet, even though the school does not offer gifted services. Baton Rouge Magnet’s class sizes can often reach the state limit of 33 students to one teacher. Gifted classes in Baton Rouge, though, have class sizes capped at 19-to-1, and they are often smaller.

Many gifted students who apply to get into Baton Rouge Magnet don’t. While many enroll at McKinley or Woodlawn instead, some families opt to pay tuition at private high schools or apply to the public boarding school in Natchitoches, the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts.

Lee High could prove as alluring to gifted kids as Baton Rouge Magnet has. Thirty gifted students attend Lee now, even though, like Baton Rouge Magnet, it doesn’t offer gifted services.

The rebuilt Lee is being touted as a “school like no other.” Designed to resemble a community college or a Silicon Valley startup, the new Lee will feature three themed academies: bioscience; digital and media arts; and engineering and robotics. The emphasis will be on learning through projects and applying scientific data and research. The school will also have an extensive partnership with LSU.

“Certainly it’s on people’s radar screens,” said Anna Fogle, president of the Baton Rouge Association of Gifted and Talented Students. “It’s obvious why. Glasgow is right down the street from Lee.”

Glasgow Middle, which has more than 100 gifted students, has historically been a big feeder school to Baton Rouge Magnet and McKinley. Fewer Glasgow kids have been able to get into Baton Rouge Magnet in recent years as the school system prioritized admittance of students from other magnet programs.

To help families with gifted children in middle school make more informed choices, Fogle’s association is holding a “student forum” Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard. A panel of students from McKinley and Woodlawn will discuss what their respective high schools are like.

The academic selection criteria for most Baton Rouge magnet schools, including Lee High, is that students test at the 50th percentile or better. Gifted children, by contrast, typically score in the 93rd percentile or better. A “near-gifted” program in Baton Rouge public high schools known as Great Scholars, which parallels gifted classes and uses the same teachers, accepts students who score in the 84th percentile or better.

Fogle said not all children used to learning with children near the top of the achievement scale do as well in classes geared towards a broader mix of children.

For instance, Fogle said her daughter found Baton Rouge Magnet a “shock to the system” after spending her whole life in gifted settings. The girl eventually transferred to McKinley High.

“There are some (gifted) kids who are a great fit who go to Baton Rouge High. I don’t know what that magic thing is,” Fogle said. “Not all gifted kids are highly motivated. They have to really want to succeed and not be intimidated by a whole new way of being taught.”

Traditional high schools McKinley and Woodlawn high schools also draw students interested in being a part of a more traditional high school. Both schools, for instance, field football, basketball and baseball teams, as well marching bands. Such teams are absent from Baton Rouge Magnet and Lee high schools, with the exception of basketball, which Lee offers.

Dakota Ball, a 2013 graduate of Woodlawn High, said he never considered applying to a magnet high school because of the lack of sports and lack of connection to the neighborhoods near the school. He qualified for Woodlawn’s Great Scholars program and never looked back. He relished the combination of advanced core classes, a diverse set of electives such as wood shop and accounting, and the opportunity to play football and baseball. Now an accounting major at Southeastern Louisiana University, Ball said his Woodlawn experience allowed him to fit in well with a wide range of people.

“It gets you prepared,” Ball said. “You’re not isolated, and you’re introduced to all walks of life.”

As Lee High’s rebuilding has neared completion, the school system has been directing more help and attention to McKinley High, the public school most at risk of losing students to Lee High.

Consequently LSU is deepening its ties not just with Lee, but with McKinley High. It’s a logical move since McKinley is walking distance from the state’s flagship university.

So in that vein, LSU’s Cain Center has been training teachers at Lee and McKinley to expand the number of dual enrollment and Advanced Placement courses at those schools. For McKinley, that means more offerings in math, computer science and Spanish, said Principal Herman Brister, Jr.

Brister is also jazzed about a program with LSU’s English department, entering its second year, where students write papers drawn from “action research,” in which they venture out into the community, asking tough questions to learn more about social problems.

Brister said he’s ready to compete with Lee and other high schools.

“We have worked to get our message out just by sheer hard work and by visiting middle schools,” he said. “We’re doing it the old fashioned way, getting out and meeting families and telling them what we’re about.”