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Southern University Looking to Authorize Charters

John Oubre | Southern University

Southern University's Board of Supervisors voted for the university to apply as a local charter school authorizer last month. If the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approves their application, Southern University will be the first university system to be a local charter authorizer in Louisiana.

The Lab School at Southern serves students from pre-K through twelfth grade. Its director, Dr. Ronnie Harrison, says that the Lab School's connection to the University is what gives it an edge, because other schools don't have such a tight connection with a university literally feet away. He says, "Our four-year-olds have conversations with university professors, with PhDs, and they come over and they teach our kids in a manner that is different."

The lab school nearly closed in 2012 due to lack of funding, but volunteers at the school fought to keep it open. One of them, Preston Castille, says, "For a bunch of us who were volunteers who thought that was obviously a terrible idea, because what the laboratory school does on the Baton Rouge campus […] it creates a pipeline to higher education. […] And we felt that if we lost that pipeline, we'd probably be in a worse predicament in the long run." And so, with the volunteers' help, the Lab School survived. In 2015, it's thriving after doubling its enrollment, adding a virtual school, and even starting a waiting list.

But they didn't want to stop there. Castille says, "If we've done that in Baton Rouge, an urban area with disadvantaged children who need the help and we've been able to provide that service to Baton Rouge students, could we provide a similar service to students throughout the state? And that's when the idea of becoming a local charter authorizer came about."

A local charter authorizer is an organization that oversees charter schools, much like a traditional school board. If its application is approved, Southern won't actually operate any charter schools. Instead, it'll invite charter operators from Louisiana and around the country to open schools under Southern's purview in areas like Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and New Orleans.

Dr. Harrison hopes the Lab School can at least provide a template for the charters' operations. He says, "We will have a chance to choose charters, uh, organizations to come in and really I guess guide them through some of the things that we were successful here with lab school and make sure that they implement some of those things."

The university hopes that becoming a local charter authorizer, as opposed to a charter school operator, they'll be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that befall other schools, such as sudden shutdowns or bad ratings. Castille likens Southern's move with owning an office building, where tenants can change without effecting the success of the building. He says, "If you close down the operating entity, the building -- the children -- could stay, you might just have a different set of managers of that organization. And that would be the idea."

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on the application soon. Until then, the Lab School will keep showing its work.