Ep. 328: What’s Up With Baton Rouge

June 23, 2022

On this episode of What’s Up with Mike McShane, we talk with New Schools for Baton Rouge CEO Ken Campbell. He tells us some challenges that some schools in Baton Rouge are facing as well as some success stories and ways to keep improving and moving forward.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. And specifically my series, What’s Up with Mike McShane. I’m Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and today we are going to answer the question What’s Up with Baton Rouge? On the podcast. I have New Schools for Baton Rouge CEO, Ken Campbell.

Now, Ken, and my paths crossed years ago. When I was still working in Washington, DC, Ken was the president of BAEO the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Those of you who might have been in the school choice movement for some time will remember the great work that BAEO did with folks like Gerard Robinson and Howard Fuller, and such incredible luminaries of the school choice movement. And obviously Ken was president and played a huge role in that organization. He was also the director of charter schools for the Louisiana Department of Education. And just prior to joining New Schools for Baton Rouge, he worked at IDEA Public Schools, the fantastic charter school network.

It was a really wonderful conversation. Ken is obviously someone who has been in the kind of school improvement game for quite a while now, both sort of working within school networks and the advocacy space. And so over the course of the conversation, he’s able to draw from all of these different experiences. We touch on the pandemic. We touch on talent. We touch on the kind of politics of school change. It’s just a wonderful rich conversation. And when I have the opportunity to talk to someone like Ken, I just realize what a privilege and what a blessing it is to be able to host a podcast like this, where I have this chance to just talk to super interesting, wonderful people who are doing interesting and wonderful things.

And so it was really wonderful to chat with him. I think you’ll hear in our conversation how much we were enjoying kind of bouncing off one another. And so without further ado, this is my conversation talking about what’s going on in K-12 education in Baton Rouge with New Schools for Baton Rouge CEO, Ken Campbell.

Well, Ken, thank you so much for joining What’s Up with Mike McShane as we try and answer the question What’s Up with Baton Rouge? So I maybe start with what’s up with Baton Rouge? Maybe kind of give us some landscape. What does schooling look like in Baton Rouge?

Ken Campbell: Yeah, well, I appreciate it and I love to get an opportunity to talk about the great things that are going on in our city. And I really think right now we got some awesome stuff going on in Baton Rouge and also some stuff that’s a little less awesome, right? So I usually start with the positives, but I’ll always start with a couple of challenges that we see probably like everybody else. As I reflect on it right now, end of the year, it’s a time of great celebration, right? So we have high school graduations going on. We’ve celebrated teachers for having a really good year, but then we’ve also been affected by a couple of graduation violent episodes. We had a big fight, kind of a brawl in one of our high school graduations.

Mike McShane: Oh.

Ken Campbell: We’ve had two where we’ve had shootings, gunfire at those, including one yesterday in New Orleans. And so I think right now, everybody is really ready to get away for the summer and take a break. And I think we’re going to be spending time, and hopefully encouraging everybody to spend time, just thinking about how this pandemic has affected folks, and kids, and families. And we’ve got to figure out a way to align around that to be able to help to do more. But that’s kind of overarching, just kind of Ken Campbell today, like the things on my mind.

Mike McShane: What you’re thinking about today.

Ken Campbell: Yeah. You got Uvalde. I mean, it’s just stuff right now, right?

Mike McShane: It’s heavy, it’s so heavy for sure.

Ken Campbell: It’s a little heavy. Yeah. But then, on the other side really optimistic about what we have going on in Baton Rouge right now. I think we have a superintendent who is aligned with the work that we need to do around quality and around equity. I think he’s the right person in our district, so I’m excited about that. Charter Share continues to grow. This fall roughly 25% or so of students will be in charter schools.

Mike McShane: How many children are in Baton Rouge in general?

Ken Campbell: So a little bit more than 40,000, right? Roughly 40,000.

Mike McShane: So a quarter in charter schools. That’s a lot.

Ken Campbell: Yeah. About quarter in charter schools, which is a huge number. We just got report back from CREDO for our 18-19 study, and charter schools just did an incredible job of improving student performance, and not just overall. What I’m really excited about, Mike, was at all the subgroups charter schools did really well. So black students, students who live in poverty, English language learners, special needs students. Across the board charter schools grew faster, closing the gaps faster against the state. And that’s really exciting.

Now we got a lot of work to do. And obviously everybody is worried about how the pandemic might have affected that. But our growth in terms of number of kids, so scaling schools and also scaling quality has been consistent. And that’s really exciting for us in Baton Rouge.

Mike McShane: And so now when you think about, if you want to understand the kind of charter sector, do you have a lot of kind of national operators that people would be familiar with? Is it more local outfits? Is it a mix? What does that look like?

Ken Campbell: Yeah, it’s a mix. Like everybody else, we started our charter sector with a lot of local folks. New Schools for Baton Rouge, we’ve been very successful in being able to create and help to sustain an ecosystem and a policy environment that attracts some of the national operators. And so we have IDEA Public Schools here out of Texas. We have a GEO Academies. They were just on Good Morning America for the work that they’re doing. They have a huge presence here. We have BASIS, which has two campuses here. We have Great Hearts opening next year.

So we really have done a good job, I think, of attracting some of those national players, but then also investing in and helping to scale some of our local strong operators. CSAL, for example, is a school that has been here probably almost 30 years, really doing strong work, excited about them.

So it is a mix. We have a school for students with dyslexia. We have a school for students who are almost all special needs, in particular with autism. And those schools just continue also to just have strong performance. So I think we’re in a really good place. We’ve got a good mix of schools and right now we’re driving performance, and parents are really exercising choice in being able to get here.

Mike McShane: That’s great. Now you mentioned the pandemic. What was the pandemic like for schools in Baton Rouge?

Ken Campbell: Yeah. Well, it’s funny. I have colleagues across the country who do similar work and as they were having conversations about how we go back to school, when we go back, I do think one advantage that we had here is we had a state department, and most of our local leaders put a priority on making sure we could get back to in-person instruction as soon as we could.

So in the fall of 2020, we kind of started the year everybody remote, but by October everybody was for the most part in some type of hybrid where they were a couple days on a couple days off. And before Christmas, for the most part, 100% of kids were in school every day with masks on. And obviously you allow parents a lot of latitude in that. So we had some kids who continued to participate virtually, but by Christmas all schools were up and running and we were doing our best to educate kids who were in-person as well as those who were at home.

So it was a challenging environment, but I’m really proud of just the leaders, the teachers and the work that they did in a situation that you never could have planned for. And I think those folks did yeoman’s work in being able to make the 2020-2021 school year as successful as they could.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Now your organization specifically, New Schools for Baton Rouge, what is your role in the kind of constellation of actors in Baton Rouge?

Ken Campbell: Yeah, well, I like to consider our organization really the voice for kind of what needs to happen to make sure that our system is providing every kid an excellent education. Right now, probably about 15,000 kids or so don’t have access to a school…that are only schools they’re accessing our DNF schools. We have some work to do there. We’re trying our best to make sure that we’re flooding the zone with as many quality schools as possible so that parents can make more choices. And so, trying to make sure that happens and that’s all encompassing Mike, it’s what are we doing about talent in our city and our school district? How do we work with district leaders, for example, to ensure we have the number of teachers that we need, that’s an ongoing issue, making sure that the right mix of choice, accountability and autonomy are the things that are continuing to drive us forward as a system.

And I think right now those pieces are working really well. You know, we’ve got more work to do. We need to make it easier and more straightforward for parents to choose. Right now, if you like this magnet school, or this charter school, and this school, like parents may have to negotiate two or three different processes to get their kids into the right school. We want to make that a lot easier and a lot more straightforward for them. And so, that’s work that we have to do. I think we’re going to continue to push accountability, right? Are we really looking at growth? What are we valuing? How are we determining when schools are performing at the level that they need to be? And what do we do when they don’t? And I think we’re going to continue to push autonomy, right? We love the charter school autonomy that we have, but in some level I think we have an opportunity to push autonomy, even within the school district. We have some magnet schools, some higher performing schools. And I think at minimum, we have the possibility of a conversation about empowering educators, empowering families, and making sure that decisions are made at the school site as much as possible. And I think that’s a conversation that is rising here. And I think we’ll do a lot of work with that.

Mike McShane: Well, another word you brought up in there was talent, and I’m interested because I know there are efforts of a really exciting and wonderful and kind of edifying efforts all across the country to try and start new schools, give schools more autonomy, empower great leaders. But I imagine all those folks are trying to get dynamite school leaders, dynamite teachers, there’s competition there. So how do y’all think through that? I mean, where are you recruiting people? Is there a crunch where there’s folks are saying, look, I could be in New Orleans. I could be in Houston. I could be in whatever. And then how do you deal with that?

Ken Campbell: Yeah, I think that is probably the biggest risk that we have to all the work that we’re doing is talent right now. The reality is that our talent preparation pipelines are not as robust as they used to be. So you look across our schools of education, LSU Southern Southeast, and across the board, they’re down significantly, right by hundreds of students, TFA is down significantly, right? Like they are in places around the country. Most of the folks who are coming into teaching now seem to be coming from non-traditional education background, right. They’ve been working for the government for a couple of years. They have a degree in sociology or whatever it is, and they find teaching a little bit late. We got to do a lot more work there quite honestly, because I don’t think we have enough new teachers coming through the pipeline in either of those different ways.

As I think about this, I think one of the biggest challenges is I haven’t seen often where we’ve gone in and talked to students in high schools specifically about the teaching profession. It seems like we introduced them to every other job in our economy. And we talk about those pathways, but I think there are real opportunities now for us to engage students at a much earlier level, and talk to them about teaching. And that doesn’t mean they need to go through, a traditional school of education. But if we could get that spark going while they’re in high school and understand how they could make a big difference in the lives of kids, I think many of them would be interested in doing it. And at the same time, we have to experiment more. I think, with what the quality of teaching look like, what we expect of our teachers, what we ask them to do school environments overall. When we started this before we got on air, you talked about in Ireland, how they have more breaks throughout the year is that a better way for us to be able to keep and retain teachers and solve some burnout?

We need to be experimenting with those sorts of things. And as one of my board members would say, “We really need to design school a little bit more with teachers in mind, we’ve always done it with students in mind.” Which I think is huge. But right now I think we need to do a better job of balancing too.

Mike McShane: And do you see sort of chartering trying to create the space for those types of experiments to happen? Because I think-

Ken Campbell: Yeah.

Mike McShane: There’s like conversation and charter world about this-

Ken Campbell: Yeah.

Mike McShane: Of like how comfortable people are with granting more autonomy-

Ken Campbell: Yeah.

Mike McShane: Versus having more oversight. So how do you think about that issue? Like thinking about it from an authorizers perspective or any of the different ways of kind of cutting across that?

Ken Campbell: Yeah. I think the charter space is the ideal space to do this, right? I think the autonomy that they have and people who bring creativity to the table, I think the challenge that they have is still coming back from pandemic. The challenges are so deep that they don’t have the kind of creative space to be able to think through that. What I’ve thought about in terms of our role, Mike, is that what we should be doing is seeding some new opportunities, like who are the organizations that can partner with the school and do some of the design thinking, right? In partnership with the school, or a school leader, or a group of schools to be able to pressure test some of this, right? To be able to come up with new ways of doing things that schools can then experiment with and pilot and say, “Yeah, absolutely this works.”

I think asking them to do it while also asking them to provide a great education for the kids in their building every day might be a stretch too far. So if we could help them by seeding some of this stuff and creating some pilots that we could share more broadly, that sounds like a great way to go. So I’m excited. And I think SR funding kind of the way that we thought about educating kids post pandemic gives us an opportunity to try some of those things. And we’re going to be pushing for some people to try them. I mean, I love to make a couple of investments and a couple of bets on people to be able to start to figure this out.

Mike McShane: And you also mentioned district partnerships and as you talk about things like autonomy and others, I know sometimes in the past and in various places that runs up against sort of the district bureaucracy hierarchy, those things, but it sounds like you have a good working relationship with what’s going on. So first off is that true? And secondly, if it is, I would love to know like what lessons you have for other folks.

Ken Campbell: Yeah.

Mike McShane: Because I know there’s so many places where people have gone at loggerheads with one another.

Ken Campbell: Yeah. I think my team would probably tell me that I’m probably more optimistic than most people are, right? So kind of what I-

Mike McShane: Optimism, isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Ken Campbell: Sometimes I’m speaking life into kind of what we need to be, but I think we do have a very positive relationship here, right? Which I think is a plus, we are really interested in working with the superintendent to help him incubate some new schools, right? In Baton Rouge for some of the work that he wants to do. And I think there’ll be opportunities for us to partner on that. I think there will be opportunities for us to work together on an enrollment system that allows parents, whether in charters or traditional public schools to easily access the schools that they want to go to. I think, if we’re able to expand early childhood education, as I think we’ll be able to do, I think that’ll be another opportunity for us to begin to partner together. And so I think part of this, Mike is us building trust with them over time, right?

That allows us to get to the point to where there’s more and more substantial work, more impactful work that we could do together over time. So I think the superintendent from a philosophical standpoint is aligned, obviously when the rubber meets the road, right? And you have to deal with the bureaucracy, it can be challenging at times. And I just think we have to continue to push for our bottom line things, which is choice, accountability, and autonomy. And I think we need more of those things. We need to solidify in those and charters, and we need them more in all of the schools throughout our district. And that’s where we’re trying to push.

Mike McShane: Now you mentioned schools like Great Hearts and others coming in. I know it’s like a super popular charter network. I’m curious folks like Great Hearts and you could insert any other any number of other groups. I think lots of cities are courting them and saying, “Hey, we’ve seen your results. This is awesome. Can you come here?” I would love to know like, what is your pitch for Baton Rouge? So why go there instead of, I don’t know, St. Louis or Memphis or Albuquerque or whatever?

Ken Campbell: I think first is the fact that we have a really strong policy environment here, right? And I think that makes a big difference. That’s at both the state level and the local level. I think the resources are very real here, right?

Mike McShane: Well, and can you tell me what that policy I’m fascinating to know. So what is that policy environment? What are the policies that are good for them?

Ken Campbell: Yeah. I just think first of all, around autonomy, like the fact that you could come in, nobody’s going to be coming in to come up your works. Like we don’t have heavy handed authorizers at either the district or the state and autonomy around teachers. You don’t have to have certified teachers, you get a lot of flexibility in being able to run your school the way that you want to run it without people being intimately involved in every step of your work. So it is a really…kind of like a green field when you’re able to come in. I think we’re able to offer some supports around facilities, right? So that we can help solve facility challenges for you early on. And that’s not to say, we’re going to get you into an old beat up district building, but we’re going to help to find a way to be able to finance a new facility for you to be able to go in, and offer the kind of education that our kids need and deserve.

You get a charter contract length, right? That is five years. That is up to 10 years based on performance, kind of as you go through renewals of your charter. So schools that perform really strongly, you could come out of that at the four year point with a 10 year charter renewal. There aren’t a lot of places that offer those sorts of things as easily as we do. And again, just the money being real money, right? They’re not a significant hold back in terms of the resources that you get. And Louisiana, is a fairly high paying state in the grand scheme of things. And so I think all those things help, I think our work around talent, right? We try to bring in and help them bring in a couple hundred teachers a year, right? So we really are involved with the cert providers with the TFAs of the world in the city years, right?

That we’re trying to continue to prop up talent and make more talent available for them, all those things I think work and really compelled by the vision for us being able to transform Baton Rouge, right? So our belief from the very beginning was that you don’t need an event like a hurricane Katrina to transform an urban school district, right? And so we want people who believe that’s possible, who come in and see that we’ve grown from 10% of kids, to 20% and now a quarter. And also, Mike, there’s something to be said about kind of strengthen numbers and kind of being in the cool place with the cool people, right? It’s like when you open the new restaurant and it’s like, “Oh, Mike McShane is at that restaurant. Well, then I got to go. Like, that’s the place I want to be.”

Mike McShane: I may have the opposite effect, but I appreciate that.

Ken Campbell: You know what I mean? So I think getting idea was big right. And basis, and this doesn’t happen overnight. I mean, it takes a lot of work and a lot of courting to be able to get them, right? I think philanthropy has been such a huge part of that so that we don’t have to rely only on kind of traditional charter school startup grants. We are able to step in and fill a huge gap and help them do the things they need to do around leader development, teacher development, community engagement, and all that work before they go in and ever get started. So I think we try to make them an offer that they can’t refuse in a place that wouldn’t be at top of mind for people. But at the end of the day, when you look at the policy environment, you look at the ecosystem, it’s a great little place to be.

Mike McShane: So now as you look to the future, I would love to know, are there some things that you’re really excited about, either new schools that are coming in, or new programs that are coming online, what do you see coming down the railroad tracks in the next three, five, ten years that you’re excited about?

Ken Campbell: Yeah. Just to continued expansion, right? So, Great Hearts is opening. We got Kinder Discovery, which is a school that’s been working in Jefferson Parish where the New Orleans airport is. They have a partnership with our largest healthcare provider in the state. So we’re excited about them coming in to open a school next year. So kind of continuing to just grow and expand great schools, and increase in the number of seats available to our families. Always excited about that. The second thing I’m excited about that I talked about a little bit is making it easier for parents to choose. We’re going to have to be able to do that. If we’re going to get to the point to where parents have real faith in the system, the transparency, right? The equity, the ability to be able to negotiate kind of one simple, straightforward process that then gives me access to all the schools.

So there’s not just the people who are savvy enough to know when is the magnet school open, and when is this schools and what is their process? We need to be able to make that easier for all parents. I think we had great opportunities, as I said to expand kind of birth to four year old education, only about 18% of our kids right now come to kindergarten, kindergarten ready. So we got some important work to do there. And I’m excited about helping to do some of that work here. I think that’ll be really cool and really fun. And then I think we got to make this a better work environment and a more attractive place for our teachers. We certainly have, now there’s a billboard on I-10 as you come into Baton Rouge from Fort Worth School District, courting teachers from Baton Rouge, we have to understand that we’re in a competitive environment.

And I don’t think teachers are only driven by pay and compensation. I think that’s a part of it, but I do think it is kind of what’s the teaching lifestyle in this school versus another school? I don’t know that we could continue to do this Mike, if we continue to think about school, the way we’ve always thought about it, right? It’s everybody who teaches has to be here from seven to five, five days a week, 180 days a year. And if you can’t do that, then you can’t teach. We have great people I’m sure who could teach, who might not want to operate that schedule, right? Who might be more interested in an intercessional calendar, right? Where you have longer breaks, where they might only go to school four days a week, fifth day might be enrichment, and an opportunity for more PD. Right now it just feels like we’re saying, we just need you to plug into the system. We need you to plug into the matrix the way it is right now. And I think what we have to help some schools do is be able to say, “No, we can change that matrix.” Right? We can create a different place so that this feels very different for our teachers.

Mike McShane: Well, I’m fired up. I’m excited. That sounds great. Well, good luck in all of your work. Obviously we’ll all be watching that and cheering you on and thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Ken Campbell: Yeah. Look happy to be here. And again, anybody who’s interested come on down to Baton Rouge and see us, right. You know, being able to scale great schools in a city, the size of ours is absolutely possible. So come and see it. Let’s talk. I’ll be at the National Charter Conference, right? So hopefully I’ll see some colleagues there. We can share the great stuff we’re doing and hopefully learn something from others also.

Mike McShane: And if this is the first time you’ve heard of Ken, you can say, I heard you on the podcast and I wanted to come up and buy you a drink. There we go.

Ken Campbell: Absolutely.

Mike McShane: That’s what it’s from. Thanks Ken.

Ken Campbell: Yeah. Thanks a lot, Mike. I appreciate it.

Mike McShane: So, like I said, in the beginning, sort of setting up this conversation, it was clear, Ken and I were having a good time with one another. I think he’s a super interesting and thoughtful guy. He obviously has a wealth of experience in this space and it was fun to kind of poke and prod with some questions and have that back and forth. You can always check out his organization’s website is newschoolsbr.org. You can get all the information about him, about the stuff that they’re doing, the investments that they’re making, what’s going on. Kind of keep up to date with the stuff. So definitely go and check out their website. A lot of interesting stuff on there. As I usually say, when I end these podcasts, I’m always on the lookout for folks to chat with. So if you know someone who’s doing something interesting, something innovative, something inspiring in education or some really smart person who understands the world of education.

Well, please let me know. I keep getting emails from folks that you’re going to start to see some of the people that I’m interviewing that are just coming from, “Hey, I listened to your podcast. You should totally talk to this person.” So please send those things my way you can email me. imjustMcShane@edchoice.org. You can tweet them at me. I’m @MQ_McShane on Twitter and you can always check out EdChoice’s website, www.edchoice.org. You can sign up for our mailing list or you can get all the different stuff please like, and subscribe to this podcast. Obviously I’m doing this interview series, but we have a bunch of other interesting stuff. I work on the team that does a lot of our public opinion polling. So every month when our polls come out, we break those down and try and put them in sort of digestible terms.

But we have also awesome updates for what’s going on in states. What’s going on in the school choice, legal movement interviews with researchers, just lots of cool stuff. So please like, and subscribe to this podcast. If you can rate it really, I only want you to rate it if you’re going to give it like a five star rating, if you think it’s not five stars, just do something else with your day, but give it a rating. And as always, I want to thank Jacob Vinson, who produces this podcast, who edits all of this stuff together. I’ve recorded like intros and outros to these things. And I had to delete them or didn’t make sense and I’ve re-recorded them. And you all, probably never hear that because Jacob seamlessly puts it all together. So thank you, Jacob. Thanks to all of you for listening. And I look forward to chatting with you again on another addition of the podcast where I try to answer What’s Up with me, Mike McShane. Take care.