Regional education leaders optimistic about growth

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 24, 2008


Editor and Publisher

LAPLACE —There were no emergency sirens going off in the Belle Terre Country Club on Thursday.

Even though five of the top educators in the region—who head the three regional school systems and two community colleges—were on hand for the River Region Chamber of Commerce Education Summit, there were no frantic cries from that leadership about the state of education in the River Region.

Quite the contrary, listening to the superintendents from St. John, St. Charles and St. James parishes, along with leadership from Louisiana Technical College and the River Parishes Community College, it left much hope for the future of education in the region.

To an individual, the five speakers were optimistic about where they were at, the growth seen from their corner of the world, and especially the direction each is currently heading.

St. John Superintendent Courtney Millet noted the recent state performance scores that showed St. John continuing to improve, while she was especially proud of the fact that East St. John High, West St. John High and Lutcher High School were three of only 12 schools in the state to be recognized statewide for top growth on their ACT scores.

“Our number one interest is to help our children learn, and the key to that is use best practices for our teachers, principals and administration, top to bottom,” she noted.

Millet recently saw St. John voters approve a $46 million bond proposal, which has her off and running on an ambitious system-wide improvement plan. And that is all coming as she has not even been superintendent for an entire year.

“I always loved being a principal, but the longer I am superintendent, the more I am starting to like this. I probably couldn’t have said that quite so easily when I first started,” she said with a little laugh.

She pointed to her top reforms as training and teaching her leaders; safeguarding the parish resources; and bringing accountability to all in the system.

“Nothing has prepared me so much for being superintendent as being a teacher, then a principal,” she said. “So when I ask our teachers or principals to do something, I know if it is doable. That past experience is what keeps me grounded.”

St. Charles Superintendent Rodney Lafon also noted the importance of starting at the top to ensure improvement from his students. That is why a Professional Learning Center in his parish has been so important, in a school system that consistently ranks among the top 10 in the state.

“We have used that center for many things to keep us on the same page, and to train our teachers,” he said. “I keep letting our people know that everyone in the system has a part to play, right from the bus driver the student first sees to start his day.”

In St. Charles, a strong emphasis continues to be on offering special classes to prepare students for specialty areas. Lafon said that an engineering course continues to be nearly full, as students have an opportunity through their Satellite Center, to take college-prep courses and be a step ahead when they move to the next level.

However he warned that the accountability model all schools are now measuring themselves against will soon be outdated.

“In three years we have to have a new plan, since the one we are using will become outdated,” he said. “I just want people to realize that everything shouldn’t be about the test scores. Some kids take longer to get to a point than others.”

Lonnie Luce, superintendent in St. James Parish, listed five goals that he follows to lead his system.

He noted student achievement, teacher qualifications, school environment and technology, enrollment and publicity, and financial resources, as the breakdown that he uses to guide him.

“We’ve got a lot of strengths in St. James, especially with the community support of our athletics,” he said. “What I want to see is the same community support for academics.”

For a smaller system, Luce said he is impressed with the fact they can offer things such as a science and math academy and a reading first initiative, all while seeing steady growth over the years.

“Our challenges are in the technological area, our media center, and our ability to sustain our reading programs when federal funds are being cut,” he noted.

But he pointed to the fact that St. James has improved from ranking in the 60s, out of 70 school districts in the state, to now rank 22nd in the most recent school performance scores.

Dave Matlosz of Louisiana Technical College in Reserve, and Joe Ben Welch of River Parishes Community College in Sorrento, both highlighted the importance of what they do, even though they agreed that the community college system is still one of the “best kept secrets” around.

“A lot of people are still surprised when we tell them we have a community college within four or five miles of LaPlace,” Matlosz said. “But we continue to do what I think is an outstanding job training young people to enter the job market.”

Both schools have been pressed hard by industry in the region to produce more workers for the expansions going on at many of the larger plants in the area.

“Industry is asking more and more from us,” Matlosz said. “And we want to help by producing students who are prepared for those jobs.”

Louisiana Technical College is seeking funds for a building expansion in the future, while River Parishes Community College recently announced the approval for a $17 million building plan. To date, they have leased their buildings.

Welch, who started the school 10 years ago with 100 students, now operates a community college with 1,400 students.

“Louisiana has one of the nation’s highest rates of illiteracy, and our state has one of the lowest technical college enrollment numbers,” Welch said. “That says something about how much we could help if we got more students.

“The one thing we have done is guarantee that if a student goes to a job we trained him or her for, we guarantee they will perform well. If they are not trained properly, we will retrain them for free. To date we’ve never had to make good on that promise,” he said.

The technical colleges offer a multitude of degrees, many of them in only two-years, for special trades that will help high school graduates qualify for a top paying job in many different fields.