Transition and continual evolution in public education was the guiding theme for St. Mary schools as 2011 was filled with both challenges and rewards.
The year began with school board members taking oaths of office at the January meeting, as all incumbents were re-elected to another term. Board members re-elected Roland H. Verret as president with vice-presidential duties designated to Edward Payton Jr.
That stability proved to be a benefit as St. Mary Parish faced trials such as severe weather conditions, fluctuations in funding, adoption of new systems for measuring academic progress and a crucial tax renewal. Commendations included increased achievement ratings on both school and district levels, grant awards and recognition on a national scale.
Inclement weather forced schools to close on Thursday, Feb. 3 and Friday, Feb. 4 due to unprecedented freezing rain and icy roadways. Then, in May, the threat of historic flooding resulted in an accelerated closing of all district schools, bringing an early end to the school year. Despite these unusual occurrences, all schools adhered to the state-required 63,720 minutes of instructional time to constitute a full academic year.
As another new school year began, two stories dominated local headlines: the re-authorization of a property tax renewal and the application of St. Mary Superintendent Don Aguillard for superintendent in Lafayette Parish.
Voters of St. Mary Parish overwhelmingly supported renewing the 11.18 mill 10-year property tax measure used to support salaries and benefits for school employees by an approval margin of nearly 71 percent. In fact, the proposition prevailed in every precinct in the parish, signifying the public’s ongoing support for St. Mary schools.
Meanwhile, after a public interview process and numerous committee votes, Dr. Aguillard was named as one of three finalists for the position of Lafayette superintendent. However, Aguillard later withdrew his name from consideration, choosing instead to fulfill his commitment to St. Mary Parish.
Over the past seven years, St. Mary Parish has demonstrated a 17.6 point increase in its District Performance Score. The 2011 DPS of 96.7 exceeded the state’s performance score of 93.9 and reflected a 2.4 point gain from the prior year. St. Mary now ranks 30th among Louisiana’s 70 school districts. The significance of the ongoing growth trend is noteworthy considering that in 2004, St. Mary’s DPS was 79.1, giving the district a ranking of 44 of 66 school districts.
DPS are calculated using individual student scores on various standardized assessments, as well as factoring in additional data such as graduation cohort index, student attendance and dropout rates.
Beginning with the 2011 DPS, Louisiana awarded letter grades instead of stars. Under the previous “star” rating system, St. Mary was considered a two-star district. The 2010 performance labels of St. Mary schools identified 5 three-star schools, 15 two-star schools, 1 one-star school, 2 schools labeled Academic Watch and no schools labeled Academically Unacceptable.
In 2011, St. Mary’s 96.7 DPS was awarded a letter grade of “C”. Additionally, the 2011 performance labels revealed 1 “A” school whose School Performance Score falls into a range of 120-200, 5 “B” schools of a 105-119.9 SPS, 11 “C” schools reporting an SPS between 90-104.9, and 6 “D” schools with an SPS of 65-89.9.
The St. Mary Parish School Board commended Berwick High (123.4) on its status as an “A” school, one of only 98 such schools in Louisiana. Also achieving honor roll status and an SPS between 105.0 and 119.9 were the following “B” schools: Berwick Elementary (112.1), Berwick Junior High (111.1), Hattie Watts Elementary (108.1), J.A. Hernandez (106.5) and Wyandotte Elementary (105.5).
St. Mary Parish proficiency ratings on state accountability tests continued to rise as 91 percent of fourth grade students and 76 percent of eighth grade students scored at a level of basic or above in both English Language Arts and Math in 2011 after spring and summer LEAP testing. However, the district remains cognizant of the need to improve student competencies.
As a result, targeted elementary students in second and third grade were offered summer academic school designed to address deficit skills and prepare them for the next grade level. Additionally, professional development remained focused on eighth grade literacy and numeracy with the year-long 212° Project designed to boost eighth grade LEAP scores.
The overall district rate of graduation has increased over the last year by 1.5 percent, resulting in 69.7 percentage rating. Since 2008, the district has gradually increased the graduation rate by 6.3 percentage points.
Incoming high school students are carefully monitored to address possible causes such as attendance and course failure through online data systems including the Dropout Early Warning System. Placing students in acceleration programs supports the remediation of skills, keeping students on track for graduation. The Accelerated Student Achievement Pathway offers an accelerated graduation track to students who enter high school overage.
Also, school officials actively seek to identify and monitor at-risk students in conjunction with targeted interventions such as the Credit Recovery Program.
Schools exhibiting significant declines in dropout rate over the previous year included Franklin and Patterson high schools. More significantly, 4-year trend data demonstrated dramatic decreases in dropout rates as Morgan City High School experienced a 56.9 percent reduction in the number of students leaving school without a high school diploma.
Additionally, PHS reported a 47.5 percent decline, while BHS posted a 48.5 percent decline in the dropout rate. Currently, three high schools and four middle schools have taken advantage of state grants through the Everybody Graduates program to fund initiatives designed to reach at-risk students and develop college and career readiness skills.
In addition, ACT profile reports detailing student performance on the American College Test during 2010-11 showed an increase in composite score from 19.3 in 2010 to 19.8 in 2011. A record-setting 366 St. Mary high school seniors participated in the national aptitude test used to measure college-readiness.
St. Mary ranked 19th out of 71 school districts based on the magnitude of 2011 results. Composite scores saw an increase in five of six parish high schools with Berwick, Centerville and Morgan City high schools scoring higher than the state average.
Further, St. Mary Parish students improved in three of the four content areas tested, rising .9 in English, .4 in reading and .4 in mathematics, while decreasing .2 in science.
Centerville High School received recognition for its 2011 College Readiness from the Louisiana ACT Council. The award recognizes high schools that increase the number of students taking the ACT Assessment over the past five years while also significantly increasing achievement levels and overall college readiness. To further assist the growing number of students desiring to enter college, free Saturday ACT workshops were offered in March and October on both ends of the parish.
Elsewhere, national recognition was extended to Hattie Watts Elementary on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education, which honored the school as a 2011 Blue Ribbon School.
The school earned the distinction based on its documented commitment to accelerating student achievement. Hattie Watts was one of only six schools in Louisiana and 305 nationally recognized in 2011.
The award is designed to publicly honor schools whose students exemplify high achievement levels or where there is an obvious narrowing of the achievement gap. Hattie Watts has documented progress in both areas and currently posts a school performance score of 108.1.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools made numerous visits to St. Mary in 2011 as three schools hosted a Quality Assurance Review Team in the challenge to maintain SACS accreditation. While onsite, the review team interviews members of the school community, visits classrooms, collects and reviews evidence and collaborates to review findings.
The team provides an oral exit report to the school, highlighting commendations, opportunities for improvement and recommendations for action. Following exit reports, Centerville High School, West St. Mary High School and BJHS each were recommended for continued accreditation.
State and local agencies adopted several new policies designed to enhance student achievement and accountability. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a mandated statewide grading scale to ensure equity in comparing student performance levels among all public school districts. The revised grading scale outlines averages for regular classes as: 93-100 A, 85-92 B, 75-84 C, 67-74 D, and 0-66 F.
Further, the LHSAA and state legislature altered language that now requires student athletes to maintain a “C” average in order to participate in sports. The change increases the level of academic performance needed for athletic involvement.
Locally, the school board adopted refinements in the School Day Policy in an effort to safeguard instructional time, particularly when faced with extreme weather conditions. Schools district-wide must schedule a minimum of 370 instructional minutes per day.
The board also adjusted its policy regarding cell phone usage for middle and high school students. The alterations to the previously adopted Electronic Telecommunication Devices Policy permits cell phones to be brought onto middle and high school campuses. However, cell phones must be powered down and stored in student lockers during the school day.
Fluctuations in both federal and state funding sources have necessitated the district’s participation in several grant applications. LaGrange and Raintree elementary schools were selected to participate in the Ensuring Literacy for All K-4 Partnership for the 2011-12 academic year.
Additionally, two middle schools began the school year following the Teacher Advancement Program. Faculties at B. Edward Boudreaux Middle School and Franklin Junior High School currently are engaged in high-level professional development targeted at using data to maximize instructional practices for improving student learning.
TAP is a research-based process from the National Institute of Excellence in Teaching. St. Mary Parish’s participation in the federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant program has provided funds for TAP. The district also is awaiting news of possible funding through Louisiana’s Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy grant for the addition of several more schools into the TAP process.
A shift in various personnel to fill instructionally critical positions vacated due to retirement, resignation or budget cutting measures resulted in leadership changes throughout the parish. Appointed or transferred administrative positions included: Suzanne Bergeron, Patterson Junior High principal; Molly Stadalis, Franklin Junior High principal; Magdalene Drexler, B. Edward Boudreaux Middle principal; Debra Torline, BJHS assistant principal; Debbie Tompkins, BES assistant principal; Elizabeth Theriot, elementary instructional specialist; Naomi Harding, Franklin High dean of students; and Shantell Toups, Curriculum Facilitator at Shannon Elementary School.
Meanwhile, the opening of the 2011-12 school year necessitated the hiring of 30 new teachers and paraprofessionals to adequately staff district classrooms. Teachers new to the district participated in a two-day orientation session known as Project Stay, designed to acclimate them to the district’s policies and initiatives.
Parish-wide professional development remained embedded within the district calendar as teachers attend content area and strategy training targeted to improve instruction.
On Nov. 7, Larry Bell, a motivational speaker and educational consultant representing Multicultural America Inc., spoke to elementary, middle and high school teachers emphasizing the power of a teacher through high expectations. Bell urged teachers to utilize specific strategies that help all children succeed and challenged teachers to reach for class-wide performance levels of 100 percent passing.
St. Mary Parish classroom teachers also were recognized by the school system as part of the annual Teacher of the Year program. Parish titles were awarded to Hattie Watts Elementary third grade teacher Christy LeBlanc, ELA teacher Lily Rebardi from MCJHS and Lisa Ratcliff, social studies instructor from MCHS.
Actions by the School Board in 2011 included two items designed to aid parents. The board continued the practice of allocating $22.50 per student to each school for supplies, various fees and science materials. Additionally, the board authorized the use of on-line payments for cafeteria meal charges through SchoolPaymentSolutions.com to help parents maintain student cafeteria accounts.
In maintenance news, substantial completions were designated for drainage improvements at Bayou Vista Elementary School, HVAC replacement for Morgan City Junior High and kitchen hood replacement. Also, installation of AquaDam for J.S. Aucoin Elementary School was completed.
Bids were awarded for a MCHS locker replacement project and 19 walk-through metal detectors for all middle and high schools were installed. An allocation of $400,000 to complete the replacement of teacher computers at 11 schools was authorized, and $200,000 to replace wood shelving in cafeteria storage areas, coolers and freezers was placed in reserve.
Additionally from the unreserved, undesignated general fund balance of $2.3 million, the board transferred $1.8 million to district capital project funds and $500,000 for future technology needs.
In May, the Town of Baldwin assumed ownership of the former Baldwin Elementary, while property that was part of the former Thomas Gibbs Elementary School was expected to be purchased by three governmental entities: Recreation District 5, Water and Sewer Commission 5 and Fire Protection District 11.
At the December meeting, the board received an “unqualified opinion” from the firm of Darnall, Sikes, Gardes and Frederick for its audit of fiscal year 2011. This is the highest distinction given by an accounting firm. Initial work on a redistricting plan began when the services of demographer Mike Hefner were contracted in June. The board has received four possible redistricting plans from Hefner. A public hearing has been scheduled to receive input from the public for Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012.
Just as 2011 has been a year of transition, education statewide will be evolving with a graduated plan to align curriculum with the Common Core State Standards, revised teacher evaluation protocol and student accountability.
St. Mary stands at the brink of a significant transformation in classroom instruction, teacher evaluation and measures of student learning. The academic gains of the last seven years, adoption of new strategies and programs and ongoing investments aligned to student needs have positioned the district to take full advantage of these changes. The ongoing commitment to exert every effort toward providing the children of our district with the best quality public education remains resolute.
The upcoming year will involve coordinating the state curriculum revisions with district initiatives and resources, prudent budgeting of available revenue sources to effectively utilize diminishing funding and maintaining the structural and technological components necessary for sustained growth.