Parents praise plan

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 1, 2002


LAPLACE – A small but fervent group of parents attended St. John the Baptist Parish School System Superintendent Michael Coburn’s public forum Wednesday on the K-8 configuration plan.

The majority of the parents who spoke during the meeting had children at LaPlace Elementary School, where the forum was held, and several of them voiced support for the plan.

“We need something now, not next year,” said Marguerite Fleming, mother of a sixth-grader at LES and president of the school’s PTO chapter. Later Fleming said she knew the PTO board members and officers are in favor of the plan, and urges the parents for support. “The ones that really believe in the school, they’ll go out and tell others about it.”

The reconfiguration plan has its roots in a 1999-2000 parent survey conducted by the previous superintendent, Chris Donaldson, which indicated “strong parental support for the K-8 structure” according to Coburn’s proposal. Coburn’s presentation outlined the two-year time line which would add seventh- and eighth-grade students at LaPlace Elementary, East St. John Elementary, Fifth Ward Elementary and John L. Ory Magnet School. Each school would add seventh-graders in 2002-03, then eighth-graders the following year. Trailers would be used to house the additional classrooms until permanent structure could be built for the 2003-04 schoolyear. The plan also includes funds for the construction of a new gymnasium at Garyville/Mt. Airy Magnet that could serve junior high students across the parish, much like the gym at Glade School on the opposite end of the parish.

Pre-kindergarten students at Fifth Ward Elementary would also be affected, moving to the St. John Child Development Center. While kindergartners at the center would switch to Garyville/Mt. Airy.

Coburn presented a cost estimate of $4.9 million for the changes, which would be funded by the school system’s current borrowing capacity of $5 million. Coburn emphasized that no new taxes would be necessary to implement the plan. For the most part, parents told Coburn they and their children liked the idea of remaining in a school environment in which they were already familiar, and it would help those families with multiple children stay in touch with their activities.

“They know the teachers, the principal, they know the support staff, and they know the rules,” said Cindy Hoffman, who has two children currently at LES.

Other parents who came forward said the quality of St. John Parish schools tempted them to switch their children to private or parochial institutions, and expressed hope the proposal would improve the quality of their child’s educational experience.

“I thought about moving out of St. John,” said Karen Whitlock, who is the vice-president of the LES PTO. Whitlock said private schools were not an option for her family due to cost, but she was willing to do what it take to make sure her kids received a quality education. “These teachers are raising our children. They’re at school during the day, they’re doing homework for them in the evening. This is our kids’ future,” Whitlock said.

Coburn addressed this problem at the very beginning of his presentation, pointing out that St. John Parish has the second-highest number of students in private or parochial schools of any parish in the state, and that 1,400 students have left the public school system since the 1992-93 schoolyear.

“Imagine the student population of East St. John High School gone,” said Coburn by way of putting the number in perspective.

Safety is also an issue addressed by the plan. The logic being that keeping middle school students in their elementary school environments will prevent them from being influenced or bullied by older students. Especially during a time when differences in physical and emotional maturity are at their most delicate.

“A smaller setting, with personalities who have been together since kindergarten, problems will decrease,” said Charlotte Bennett, mother of a first-grader at Glade School. Bennett acknowledged the recent problems with fighting on the Glade campus but endorsed the “positives of an inclusion setting.”

Some parents raised potential logistical problems with space for the students, as well as questions as to whether going to a “neighborhood schools” concept would be in violation of the court-ordered 10-year desegregation program. Coburn said the school board’s lawyers had reviewed the plan and felt it would meet the court’s requirements for “Unitary Status.”

Board member John Crose was at the forum and he said he felt the plan was the correct course of action for the school system.

“It’s time we let the people who run our schools, run our schools,” said Crose, adding the plan was something that could be implemented quickly, but was well thought-out. “It’s their careers on the line, (Coburn’s) got to look the public in the face.”

The only contrary voice at the meeting was School Board Dist. 8 Rep. Russ Wise, who emphasized that he felt the proposed plan was “excellent” and that he was “a big fan of Mike Coburn,” but he told the assembled parents this was not the only option.

Wise wants to adopt the first year of the plan, and form a committee drawn from a broad groups of school officials, board members, civic leaders, and representatives from the business community and the general public. The committee would meet with education system experts within the state, as well as other parts of the country, to develop a comprehensive 10-year plan for all grades K-12.

Wise drew a parallel with the work done on the accountability program in Louisiana, which he credits as the blueprint for President George W. Bush’s national accountability initiative.

“We continue to build our way out of temporary problems,” said Wise, who will present his committee idea at the next scheduled meeting of the school board.

Wise said he had submitted an alternative plan calling for the construction of smaller, neighborhood elementary schools, and his research showed this structure creates better performance results for the students. But he emphasized that the committee would not be created to lobby for this plan, adding that if the committee found the current configuration was the best possible option, he would be for it.

Crose said the K-8 configuration would be necessary before going forward with a 10-year plan of the sort proposed by Wise.

“People aren’t breaking down doors to get into our schools,” said Crose. “We haven’t created excitement. Once you do that, then you have a head of steam to move forward.”

The school board is expected to vote on the proposal during its April 11 meeting. Coburn is scheduled to hold another public forum Wednesday at 7 p.m. at West. St. John Elementary School.