St. John joins Race to the Top

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 9, 2010

By David Vitrano


RESERVE – A signature that came late Friday ensured the St. John the Baptist School District will be a part of the state’s application for over $4 billion in federal funds as a part of the Race to the Top program.

The school board met Thursday morning to weigh the program’s pros and cons and decide whether the district would take part, but at that meeting local teacher’s union representative Carolyn Batiste informed school board members the union had not yet decided whether it was on board or not. She said she was going to Baton Rouge later that day to continue talks.

Friday afternoon, an agreement was reached, so all the pieces were finally put in place.

“I’m glad the SJAE put the children first in their decision,” said School Board President Dr. Gerald Keller.

As for the board itself, although approval was unanimous, it was not given without much hesitation and discussion.

Board member Russ Wise was the first to voice his concerns over signing the application. He said he was uneasy about signing a document that still contained “blanks.”

Superintendent Dr. Courtney Millet, however, attempted to assuage his fears by explaining signing the document was merely the first step in agreeing to develop and refine strategies for the district to fall in line with the Race to the Top plan outlined by the state Department of Education. “We will agree that we will look at it,” said Millet.

Among the objectives set forth in the plan are: adopting standards and assessments aimed at helping students succeed in the global economy; building data systems that measure student growth; recruiting and rewarding high-quality teachers and principals; and turning around the lowest-performing schools. It was the third one on the list that had been the sticking point for the teacher’s union as it deals with changing the ways in which educators in the state are evaluated.

Millet, however, made it clear that whether the district was a part of Race to the Top or not, a revamping of teacher evaluations was in order. She said the ways in which teacher performance is measured in St. John has not changed in at least 20 years.

Chris Meyer, a representative from the state Department of Education, was also on-hand at the meeting to help clarify the process for the board.

A number of board members had questions about the sustainability of the plan as the funding is set to run out in four years.

According to Meyer, however, it was in the board’s best interest to take part in the program as changes are on the way regardless.

“The state’s going there anyway,” said Meyer. He explained by 2012 the state plans to make value-added evaluations for teachers mandatory.

He also helped ease board members’ fears about the rigidity of inclusion in the program. He said districts ultimately have the final say in how the goals of Race to the Top are met, and the option to withdraw from the plan is available.

“This really is a vision of what you want your school system to look like,” said Meyer.

Nonetheless, similar fears have caused other school districts in the state to decline taking part in the program. Notably, the St. Tammany School Board rejected the proposal despite the superintendent’s endorsement.

The St. John School Board, however, did approve the proposal, much to the delight of Millet.

“It’s things that we should be doing, and if we’re not doing them, it’s just that we haven’t gotten to it yet,” she said.

According to Meyer, approval from the federal government will be given in April and funds should be distributed in the summer.