New help for at-risk children

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 28, 2012



LAPLACE – Collaboration between the St. John School Board, the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and a local non-profit has created a mentoring and tutoring program for young children and teens in the school system.

Eliza Eugene, founder of Blessed to be a Blessing in St. John Parish, explained the program offers a three-pronged approach in its efforts to prevent at-risk youth in the parish from underperforming in the classroom.

“Our focus is on youth intervention, truancy intervention and afterschool homework assistance,” Eugene said. “If we can impact these students now and keep them from failing in the classroom, it will go a long way toward getting them off the streets.”

St. John District Attorney Tom Daley said the program, which got started about two months ago in St. John, is modeled after a similar juvenile diversion program in Terrebonne Parish.

“The DA’s office and the Sheriff’s Office reviewed the program in the hopes of copying it here in St. John,” Daley said. “The program takes children at an early age who have assignment problems or discipline problems and addresses the reasons behind those problems. The goal is to keep the issues with school from growing into something much more serious.”

Eugene said the program is currently working with students at Emily C. Watkins Elementary, specifically those who live in the LaPlace Oaks public housing units. She said she has been working with Watkins Principal Antoinette Robinet to identify students for inclusion in the program.

“Every weekday evening after school, teachers from Watkins assist students at a ‘Homework Hut’ at the Housing Office’s community center,” Eugene said. “The after-school activities are designed to educate and motivate those students who need a little help in the classroom. The homework help is accompanied by a weekly report with teachers regarding the progress in the classroom to ensure that what we are doing makes a difference. When I hear the principal begin to talk about some of these children starting to blossom it tells me that we are on the right track.”

Eugene also said the program has also forged a connection with teenage students at the St. John Alternative School. She said about 15 young girls at the school have been assigned a mentor that works with them on identifying problems related to academics, health and other issues.

“We are trying to build these girls’ self esteem by encouraging them to participate in activities that showcase their skills,” Eugene said. “The mentors work one-on-one with the girls to build their trust and encourage positive behavior. We want to strengthen their social skills so that they can lead responsible lives in the future.”

The program includes interaction between the girls and senior citizens in the area, who encourage them and offer positive reinforcement. She said the girls connect with them and they open up about some of the problems they experience in school.

Eugene said funding for the program comes from a grant through her non-profit, as well as a pair of $10,000 donations from the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office. She also said the School Board contributed the salary costs for the five teachers and two aides on staff at the “Homework Hut.”

Eugene is hoping that the program can eventually help to increase graduation rates in the parish.

“Right now, the parish graduates about 65 percent of its students, and we want to break that,” Eugene said. “Unless we can find a way to reach these children when they are young, we will never be able to have a stable community. This is a good step in the right direction.”