Giving Back: WSJ succeeding through strife

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, September 23, 2014

EDGARD — Fiftieth in the nation. It’s the tall honor Newsweek has awarded to the teachers, principals, pupils, parents and everyone else associated with West St. John High School in Edgard.

In an article titled “Beating The Odds 2014 – Top Schools For Low-Income Students,” the magazine said it sought to “recognize schools that beat the odds, performing better than statistically expected for their level of poverty.”

For the list, schools were ranked on how well they prepare their students for college, taking students’ socioeconomic background into account.

West St. John was ranked 50 out of 500 schools recognized for their efforts, and received special recognition for low-income students at the school scoring at or above average on state assessments.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Advanced Studies, a selective magnet school, is the only Louisiana school ahead of WSJ on the list, ranked at 42.

Newsweek said their “rankings aim to identify the public high schools in the U.S. that do the best job of preparing students for college and overcome the obstacles posed by socioeconomic inequality,” adding WSJ was one of the top schools in the country working to “narrow the achievement gap.”

With a college readiness score 96.6, a college-bound student percentage of 79.82, a graduation rate of 75.2 and a poverty percentage of 95.28, WSJ’s rank is extra impressive, St. John Schools Superintendent Kevin George said, when you take into account the school has no selective admissions process.

District 1 School Board member Russell Jack, whose area of representation covers Edgard, said he was ecstatic to receive the news.

“I started calling people right away,” Jack said with a smile.

“Everybody is excited. It’s all they were talking about Friday night at the football game.”

Principal Erica Merrick said she thinks the award has added a whole new wave of momentum to the efforts at WSJ, and throughout the entire district.

George said what makes WSJ so special is “everybody pitches into make this school great.”

He said with community and parental involvement, as well as everyone from the custodians and food service workers to the principals and teachers, “everybody pulls their weight and everybody does what they need to do” to ensure student success.

Merrick said WSJ teachers and administrators have been very focused on meeting all of the academic needs of the students, including advanced placement options and dual-enrollment classes.

She said teachers at the school are always going above and beyond by participating in summer workshops, additional trainings, conferences and online classes to ensure they are up-to-date on curriculum changes and educational trends.

She said several teachers have also recently volunteered to help the school advance in other areas, including a teacher working to re-establish a yearbook and another teacher working hard to bring robotics to the school.

The amount of involvement from the community, teachers and parents is “a source of pride for these kids,” George said of WSJ students. “They have pride and they’ll do whatever it takes to succeed and do their best.

“When kids see adults take so much pride in their work, it makes them want to reciprocate the effort.”

Merrick said because the parents of WSJ students are often alumni, the school is part of their lives and history.

“They definitely bleed blue and white,” Merrick said. “It’s exiting to see and be a part of.”

Quentina Timoll, assistant superintendent of curriculum, praised the teachers and administrators, saying they all work very hard to make the school excellent.

“She always goes above and beyond,” Timoll said of Merrick. “We couldn’t be having this conversation (about the award) without her leadership.”

Social studies teacher Brett Zimmerman said the teachers at WSJ take on many roles in the students’ lives because of the small size of the school, adding being in a rural community and in a small school means the teachers are able to really get to know the students.

Many teachers agreed about the 8-12th grade school, which currently has 202 students and 22 teachers.

“I love the fact that we have small class sizes,” teacher Thomas Walters said, adding the small size means the teachers are able to really get involved in the community and students’ extra-curricular activities.

Spanish teacher Nelann Taylor said when news of the award spread to the school “we all celebrated.

“All of us are very proud,” Taylor said.

Math teacher Candice Florent-Murphy, who also leads the school’s dual enrollment effort, said she doesn’t mind working hard during the summer with additional training because continuing to learn and grow as an educator helps her students be the best they can be.

Merrick said the entire WSJ staff wants “our kids to know we care.”

She said several times a year school staff — including teachers, cafeteria workers, custodians and administrators — pitch in money for uniforms, school supplies and other items some students may lack.

Merrick said it’s important when students are at WSJ they know they’re “in a structured environment that’s family and we’re going to take care of you.”

She said the staff never focuses on the social of economic status of the students, instead encouraging them that no matter what their story has held or currently holds, the students are in charge of one thing.

“We tell them, ‘You can definitely control how this story will end,’” Merrick said.