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Baton Rouge charter school is base for new “hybrid” program | Education

In what it is billing as the “first hybrid charter school in Louisiana,” a Kenner-based charter school network is using its eight-month-old Baton Rouge school as the base for a mostly online learning program that aims to attract hundreds of students from across Louisiana.

Discovery Fusion, the latest offering from Discovery Schools, is not technically a school, though. Rather, it’s a learning pod.

Learning pods educate children in smaller, more personalized settings via a mix of online and in-person instruction. They became popular in the homeschool world during the pandemic, partly as a way to minimize exposure to COVID.

Charter schools in Louisiana are starting to embrace the approach as a way to expand their reach well beyond the geographic boundaries of their physical campuses. In the process, the pods are blurring the lines between a brick-and-mortar charter school and a virtual charter school.

Charter schools are public schools run privately via contracts, or charters.

Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA is the largest charter school network in Louisiana and pioneered the pod concept. The company’s initially under-the-radar venture into learning pods sparked controversy and two critical audits. In December 2022, after lengthy negotiations, the company persuaded state education leaders to adopt relaxed rules for learning pods. Charter Schools USA currently operates five learning pods across south Louisiana, educating about 280 children. Each pod is a satellite campus and they serve as an extension of Iberville Charter Academy, a Charter Schools USA school in Plaquemine.

Using the same blueprint as Charter Schools USA’s pods, Discovery Fusion is an extension of one charter school, Baton Rouge Ochsner Discovery, or BROD. BROD opened in August at the former campus of the Runnels School, a private school that closed in 2020. Fusion’s goal is to attract as many as 280 students next year from across Louisiana. It is starting with grades five to eight. Over time, it plans to expand beyond middle school and educate students in grades one to 12.

“We know that this hybrid virtual model will appeal to many students in the state who want the flexibility of a virtual school, but with the stability and option of a campus base that offers face-to-face interactions with teachers,” Patty Glaser, chief executive officer for Discovery Schools, said in a statement.

The nonprofit Discovery Schools is best known for Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy and Dr. John Ochsner Discovery Health Sciences Academy. These popular Jefferson Parish charter schools educate about 3,000 students collectively, and both have B academic letter grades from the state. Discovery focuses on health sciences and maintains a corporate partnership with the Ochsner Health Network.

BROD is Discovery’s first expansion outside of Jefferson Parish. The school got off to slow start enrollment-wise and currently has a total of 143 students enrolled in prekindergarten to fourth grade. That’s 287 fewer students than the school had projected it would enroll in its first year. 

However, the school now has an ace in the hole: a Type 2 charter that allows it to enroll students from across Louisiana. Its sister schools in Jefferson Parish have more limited Type 1 charters that allow them to enroll only students who live in that parish.

Traditional brick-and mortar schools have constraints on who they can enroll thanks to the length of the commute to and from school. One in five of BROD’s current students lives outside East Baton Rouge Parish, all of them come from neighboring parishes and school districts, though.

Learning pods, especially ones like Discovery Fusion operating primarily online, eliminate that geography problem. Each additional student means an average of about $9,000 a year in public funding for Baton Rouge Ochsner Discovery.

Discovery Fusion began recruiting students in October and still has slots, but those spots are filling up, said Lacey Weaver, a spokeswoman for the charter network.

Weaver said for families that want in-person instruction and support, BROD is designating a room on its Baton Rouge campus that during the school day will be staffed with certified teachers, one for each subject. Each Fusion student will have a mentor teacher assigned to them, and students can participate in sports and school clubs, virtually and in person, she said.

Weaver said that Discovery’s Kenner campus will also be available to Fusion students and if demand is sufficient, the network may add additional service locations in the state.

Online instruction, however, will be the dominant mode. On a pre-checklist completed in the fall for the new pod, Discovery officials indicated that while it won’t be 100% online, more than 50% of instruction at Discovery Fusion will be online.

Discovery Fusion is an idea that the charter network has been considering since at least 2018.

In July 2021, the charter network applied to open Discovery Fusion as a strictly online charter school, but the Jefferson Parish School Board rejected its application. Discovery Schools opted not to appeal that denial, according to minutes from a subsequent board meeting, due to “national push back on virtual learning and (pandemic-related) learning loss work at Discovery Schools.”

As a pod, Discovery Fusion can keep 100% of its public funding — virtual charter schools can keep just 90% — but it also faces limitations.

For instance, if more than 50% of its students are learning virtually for more than half of each school day then Baton Rouge Ochsner Discovery is obliged to seek a formal change to its Type 2 charter, known as a material amendment, or face repercussions. To avoid seeking such a contract change, BROD will need to attract a lot more students to its brick-and-mortar school. If Discovery Fusion meets its initial goal of signing up 280 students, BROD will have to nearly double its number of traditional students next year.

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