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Hemelt: Competition breeds more school options

Two weeks ago in this space we suggested the addition of a quality charter school to St. John the Baptist Parish has the ability to better our community.

One dream scenario has the charter school opening in either 2018-19 or 2019-20 and offering hard working local parents another education option for their children. That, in turn, motivates our existing public and private schools to improve their offerings. If all education options improve, St. John stands in position to attract out-of-town families to move in and existing families to stay.

That might sound like fake kumbaya to a cynic, but I’m pretty sure we’ve already seen our first positive domino.

St. John the Baptist Parish Public School leaders announced publicly last week their plans to pursue opening a magnet high school program for local students, with hopes to begin in August.

If successful, the new school would offer a focused STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) education free of charge to students who meet enhanced education benchmarks for admission.

St. John Public Schools Superintendent Kevin George said the magnet program gives parents another choice.

“We need to take those kids that excel in the math, science and the STEM fields and give them the opportunity to really grow through access to high level mathematical courses and high level science courses that prepare them for a career in the STEM field,” George said.

“I think we owe it to those kids. When you specialize in math and sciences, you can really hone in and get the most out of every single kid.”

George plans to update School Board members monthly on progress being made toward opening, adding details have to be finalized by May for the official go-ahead.

School Board Member Russ Wise said many in the room were surprised when the initiative was shared during the Jan. 22-23 School Board retreat, adding that didn’t tamper enthusiasm for what a successful magnet high school program might accomplish. There is split opinion on if the effort would be best served opening with ninth through 12 grades this August or starting smaller and expanding grade levels in future academic years.

“I think this will attract a number of families that are paying a lot of money to send their kids to private and parochial schools,” Wise said. “I think it would be a great attraction to them because they would be getting a superior education virtually free, because taxpayers are paying for it.”

Wise has long been a proponent of a second public high school on the East Bank, noting the parish’s population center in LaPlace would make an ideal permanent location.

School Board President Ali Burl told me he expects the effort to take off, eventually leading the District to build another high school to accommodate the magnet school’s size. In speaking to three School Board members and the superintendent, none expressed any concerns about the magnet school weakening the viability of the District’s existing public high schools — West St. John High and East St. John High.

I’d be a little more concerned, and surely it’s being addressed through this process.

Now, it will be interesting to see how the parish’s neighboring schools respond.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.