Chamber hears from superintendents

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 27, 2002


LAPLACE – River Parishes business leaders enjoyed the rare opportunity of hearing all three public school superintendents give a year-end wrapup of their respective school districts at a luncheon Thursday, hosted by the area Chamber of Commerce.

For St. John the Baptist Parish Supt. Michael Coburn, first up on the podium, it was a chance to deliver a rapid-fire report, during which he spoke of five central issues: public versus private schools, image, teacher certification, test scores and plans for a new K-8 configuration.

“We are fighting that battle,” Coburn said, after pointing out the parish has 11,300 school-age children, but with only 6,100 in public schools. This places St. John Parish at second place in Louisiana in the percentage of students in private schools.

Coburn emphasized the district is trying to woo back parents by demonstrating the public district is providing an excellent education in clean and safe schools.

“We learn every day, and we grow every day,” he said.

This goes hand in hand with public image and perception of the school district, where his motto is “accountability, assessment and achievement,” a motto reflected in the speeches of all three River Parishes superintendents during the event. In addition, greater effort is being put forth in the St. John Parish School District to attract more parent volunteers.

“We’re working hard on parental involvement,” Coburn said.

The school district is also making strides in attracting certified teachers, having gone from 35 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2001 to 98.8 percent now. Test scores, Coburn said, improve every year. However, he emphasized, “We’re not where we want to be, not even close.”

Because LEAP scores, by law, are inclusive of both regular and special education children, it does not show that 80 to 90 percent of regular education students passed the LEAP tests this year.

And, since St. John Parish has the second-highest percentage of special education students in Louisina, 1,226 students or 23 percent, that number affects the totals.

Coburn invited business leaders to visit the schools and involve themselves more in school activities, including mentoring programs.

Finally, as earlier reported, the superintendent is pushing his K-8 plan for neighborhood schools, based on the expectation that with fewer transitions from one school to the next, students will make smoother progress through the system. He is awaiting final approval from the U.S. Justice Department to proceed, and with voter approval July 12 of a $5 million bond issue, he said he hopes to finance the necessary construction soon.

Like his peer, Dr. Rodney Lafon, superintendent of St. Charles Parish schools, focused on accountablity and assessment in achieving scholalistic success. According to Lafon, the success of programs such as the $28 million bond issue and one-cent sales tax, approved in October, the addition of senior projects to graduation requirements, the substitution of patron tours for superintendent forums, School-to-Career, the infant to 3-year-old preschool program and more instructional technology are great, but are not enough.

The school district scores, as recently reported, placed St. Charles Parish’s school district in the top five of Louisiana and above the national average.

“I don’t focus on accomplishments,” Lafon said. “It’s the future we need to focus on. And you know what? That’s not good enough.”

He called upon business leaders to get more involved in the school system, through job shadowing for students, teacher interns and in urging state and federal lawmakers to improve funding for special education, health insurance and to ensure students in need of help go to summer school.

“The feds give 12 of the 40 percent promised (for special education),” Lafon said.

Lafon said he was “embarrassed” to go elsewhere in the country and reveal Louisiana has a $75,000 homestead exemption, leaving the burden of financing public education to the business and industrial community, rather than the general public.

“Until everybody’s paying, everybody won’t care,” Lafon emphasized.

“We spend enough and we need more from Washington,” Randy Noel of REVE Inc. said about special education spending during the question and answer session.

In addition, Lafon urged the establishment of a program for students who are about to complete their GED, but need work skills before entering the workforce. St. Charles Parish, like St. John the Baptist Parish, is experiencing a problem attracting certified teachers, Lafon said, part of the national teaching crisis.

According to Lafon, business and industry people are needed in education and should be encouraged to pursue a second career as a teacher.

St. James Parish Superintendent Dr. P. Edward Cancienne said his administration is still dealing critical issues, such as east and west banks, black and white, industry and communities and wealthy and poor. Urging for improved school discipline, Cancienne commented, “We cannot have children with their pants half down.”

Cancienne urged more instruction on America’s free enterprise system and toward addressing the problems of adult literacy and opportunities for those who have no post-secondary education.

“That’s what businesses can do,” Cancienne said. “It can change that mindset (about technical schools).”

To prepare students for a career in business and technology, Cancienne plans to include a Math-Science Academy for grades 7 and 8 and a career technology center.

“We have a revolution going on to overcome a culture of mediocrity,” Cancienne said.

During a question session following each presentation, special education came under the most discussion, as one-fourth of St. John Parish students are in special education, compared to 12 percent in St. James Parish and one-tenth in St. Charles Parish.

Stan Dufrene of Dow Chemical praised the HOSTS program in St. Charles Parish and urged his fellow business leaders to participate and prompt their employees to do the same.

Sue Burge of MetroVision’s School-to-Career program commented, “If they don’t see the relevance of learning we just perpetuate the problem.”

Rep. Gary Smith observed the vital role the River Parishes play in supporting the metropolitan areas of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, applauded comments by Cancienne calling for regional planning on purchasing for the districts, and urged more cooperation as a region.

Allyson Villars of Barriere Construction applauded the forum, and said everyone was “so candid.”