Universal preschool in Baton Rouge? Superintendent said COVID relief money could make it happen

The Advocate

As a stepping stone towards some sort of universal preschool, new Baton Rouge schools chief Sito Narcisse said he hopes to use federal coronavirus relief money to expand education this fall for 4-year-olds and create mini-schools or centers for children as young as infants.

Narcisse also said he wants to rework courses in collaboration with local business and industry and to make greater use of community colleges, all in order to help launch teenagers more quickly into promising careers.

Narcisse spoke about his budding plans at a webinar Tuesday morning organized by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and sponsored by Iberia Bank.

Formerly chief of secondary schools in Washington, D.C., Narcisse took over the East Baton Rouge Parish school system in January with big talk about the potential of the state’s second largest traditional school district, but has so far made public few specifics.

On Tuesday, Narcisse made clear his determination to vastly expand early childhood education in Baton Rouge. It’s long been a goal of his predecessors, but has run aground largely for financial reasons.

Narcisse said that many children in Baton Rouge come to school behind, which stunts their future academic chances. He displayed some data to support his point, including that nearly 60% of children arrive in kindergarten below grade level in reading.

“That’s because we don’t have universal pre-K,” Narcisse said flatly.

In that vein, Narcisse noted that only about a third of local children have access to publicly funded preschool or prekindergarten programs before they reach kindergarten.

To rectify that situation, Narcisse said he plans to tap into some of tens of millions of dollars in federal money coming to the school system. Part of that, he said, will go to adding seats in prekindergarten, which serves four-year-olds — about 1,800 children currently attend public pre-K centers in Baton Rouge.

Narcisse, however, said “if I have my way” he will add offerings as well for the youngest children, from birth to three-year-olds. He described these as “micro centers” located at schools. He said he’s adapting something that’s being used currently in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The ultimate goal, he said, would be to have a universal pre-K, as well as greatly expanded education for younger children.

Narcisse pegged the cost of a maximal early childhood program at $135 million, which he said is too expensive to do all at once. Instead, he said he hopes to build out early childhood offerings over time and eventually bring a tax proposal to voters to offer a permanent public funding source for early childhood.

This is not a new issue for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. Starting in 2018, the business lobby offered support a local tax to support “universal early childhood education” and pressed School Board members running that year to commit to supporting it as well.

Narcisse told business leaders listening in that he is mindful of their needs.

“You hire kids from our school system,” Narcisse said, “but it’s important that they are prepared to service the jobs that are now in the city, but also the jobs 10 years from now that are not yet created.”

After his talk, Alex Stubbs, Narcisse’s new director of parent & community engagement, acknowledged the school system is exploring its options for expanding early childhood education, but said “we have nothing set in stone yet.”

Revamping high schools also figured prominently in Tuesday’s webinar.

Narcisse said he was excited coming here to learn that Louisiana, unlike some other states, gives school leaders wide latitude in how they organize high schools. As part of that, he wants local businesses to help redesign junior and senior year offerings.

He said he’s on board with State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley’s Fast Forward initiative, which will expand the chances for teenagers to earn college credits while still in high school, enough for them to earn either an associate’s degree or an industry certification. East Baton Rouge was recently awarded a $50,000 Fast Forward planning grant.

Narcisse said his staff are focused initially on expanding job pathways in five areas: liberal arts/law, STEM; construction and related fields; agriculture; and medicine. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Part of that, he said, will involve making greater use of the career and technical education center known as EBR CTEC, which opened in summer 2018. He said he wants to start having middle school students come to the center on Lobdell Boulevard to take introductory STEM classes as a way of exposing them to what Narcisse considers the under-used facility.

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