Facilitator Skip Smart, director of community competitiveness for Louisiana Economic Development, said the meeting was part of Baker’s involvement in the Louisiana Development Ready Communities program.
Survey results tabulated in October indicate that among the five core issues of education, infrastructure, labor, leadership and marketing, education is the most critical issue facing Baker.
Smart reviewed guidelines for the forum and invited participants to express their concerns following the panelists’ presentations.
Panelists included Ulysses Joseph, superintendent of Baker schools; Joyce Burges, founder of National Black Home Educators and a city council member; Eric Lewis, state director, Black Alliance for Educational Options; and John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education.
Joseph presented an overview of the school system, touching on parental participation, building repairs, incentives for students through partnering with business, an example being free meals from Subway for outstanding students.
Burges discussed the benefits of home schooling bringing families together in a safe environment and stressing cultural and religious advantages. Some 15,000 children are home schooled in Louisiana, she said.
The role of BAEO was outlined by Lewis, an advocate of quality options for low-income families. Started 12 years ago, its voucher program has helped 40 Baker children to change schools. “BAEO knows how to get kids into better schools and charter schools are a good alternative,” Lewis said.
“There are people who think that not all children can achieve – an uncomfortable thought,” White said.
He is willing to do whatever it takes for all kids to receive a quality education. Only half the children entering kindergarten can count to 20 or recognize the 26 letters of the alphabet, White said.
Audience participation, often emotional, brought up questions about poor teachers, bullying, security, poverty, discipline problems and “Baker bashing.”
Baker’s problem is a lack of money, according to Carolyn Hill, the 8th district member of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Baker doesn’t have the tax base to run off Minimum Foundation Program money alone. This year Baker lost $500,000 of state MFP money. People in the community must come together, she said.
Smart thanked the panel and audience for discussing the issues, another step in the process toward making Baker a model community, attractive to families and businesses.
The steering committee of Louisiana Development Ready Communities and Mayor Harold Rideau’s office sponsored the forum. LaTania Anderson is project manager of the five-year strategic plan. Roosevelt Bryant is co-chair of the public sector and Steve Stein, co-chair of the private sector.