St. Charles boasts top principal, teacher

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 20, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson

LULING – The Louisiana Department of Education announced the 2014 Louisiana Teacher and Principal of the Year during the seventh annual Cecil J. Picard Educator Excellence Symposium and Celebration, a day of professional development and recognition for Teacher and Principal of the Year finalists.
The news makes history for St. Charles Parish Public Schools, as it is the first time the district has had both teacher and principal of year winners in the same year.
The department announced  Ajit “AJ” Pethe, principal of Luling Elementary School, as this year’s Principal of the Year. La’Keisha McKinney, a reading/math instructor for gifted students in third through sixth grades at R.J. Vial Elementary School, received the Teacher of the Year award.
Pethe was an educator for 16 years and has served as principal at Luling Elementary for the past six years. Pethe said he is known for his high expectations and took that attitude with him as he took on his new role at Luling Elementary. The principal’s track record of success began with setting higher standards for the students and administrators of the school. Pethe also attributes his success to the hard work and dedication of his teachers.
“Even though St. Charles Parish is a high-performing district, we were a lower-performing school, so the challenge was to change the perception of our school. It really started with the school motto, ‘Expect more, achieve more.’ We felt that if we expected more from ourselves as teachers and administrators, we could expect more from our students. That, in turn, will lead to greater achievement,” said Pethe.
Pethe takes pride in the fact that he helped lead Luling to increase its school performance score by nearly 20 points during his tenure. Pethe also instituted a condensed methodology last year that was modeled after “The Essential 55,” a rule system designed by Disney Teacher of the Year Ron Clark. Pethe said his “Essential 16” will reinforce skills that will bring  success to his students later in life. When combined with the jump in tests scores, the principal said the rules make up the “total package.”
“All those things are going hand-in-hand with the academic part. We’re not only getting students who perform better academically, but also well-behaved, well-mannered students who can be sucessful in the real world, too,” he said.
Teacher of the Year McKinney has 16 years of classroom experience and is National Board Certified. She was recently awarded Teacher of the Year for Mimosa Park Elementary in 2007.  McKinney also is a member of the College and Career Readiness Taskforce and the School Improvement Team and is a district mentor.
McKinney said she was inspired to begin a career in education because she loved watching the things her mother, who was also an educator, did in the classroom. McKinney said her mother also instilled in her a love of education and reading at a very young age.
McKinney said that her biggest challenge as a teacher has been her concern for meeting the needs of all of her students, saying that communication is key for helping those students who are not able to perform at the same level as the curriculum. McKinney also said she encourages communication with the parents so that they can help their children learn at home.
“Of course, as a new teacher you have lots of great ideas that you learned in college. But sometimes when you’re in the classroom setting, it’s a whole other world. I learned very early on that it’s important to provide one-on-one instruction for the kids. Finding time in the classroom during class to work with the students one-on-one is very important,” she said.
McKinney has seen her students progress to become more self-directed learners within the past year and said it motivates her to create more purposeful lessons.
In the future, she plans to work with other teachers and share her personal philosophies and methods of working with gifted students.
“They are able to make more decisions in their learning, which is very important for me. But even more importantly, I noticed that what they’re learning in my classroom is being transferred to their everyday life situation. That just stresses to me the importance of making every lesson very meaningful,” she said.
Dream Teachers, in conjunction with sponsors such as Albermarle, the Credit Bureau of Baton Rouge Foundation, the Boo Grigsby Foundation and Mercedes Benz of Baton Rouge, presented Pethe with two $1,000 checks.
McKinney and other teacher of the year finalists each received $2,500, but McKinney said she received an additional $10,000 and a brand new Mercedes Benz. Although the car is only hers to drive for a year, the teacher is still enthusiastic.
“I was not expecting any of this. I had no idea that it was to this magnitude. They really did a great job of making me feel extra special,” she said.
Both educators also received an assortment of gift cards to restaurants and businesses.
Dream Teachers is a non-profit organization founded to recognize Louisiana’s finest educators and educational leaders and encourage educational excellence.