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Hemelt: Plans shared for underperforming St. John public schools

The list of accomplishments, based on assessments from the state education department, concerning St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools is impressive.

Much of it was shared with School Board members and the public following the information’s release in early November.

Administrators tout, and deservedly so, that St. John has the highest District Performance Score of any District in the state that serves a student population where at least 83 percent are classified “economically disadvantaged.”

St. John also increased the number of students scoring mastery or above on state assessments, a new benchmark for students to be at to be perceived as college or career ready. St. John is also among the top 10 school districts in Louisiana for growth in students scoring mastery and above on science assessments.

Of the 10 graded public schools in St. John the Baptist Parish, six showed year-over-year improvements. Those included East St. John Elementary, Emily C. Watkins Elementary, Garyville/Mt. Airy Magnet, John L. Ory Magnet, Lake Pontchartrain Elementary and West St. John High.

When this information was shared and celebrated during the most recent School Board meeting, District 4 Representative Patrick Sanders asked an important question.

“There were significant declines in four of the schools that are listed here,” Sanders said to administrators. “We have talked about them in the various meetings and different things, but just for the public to get a full awareness of specifics, what are we doing to improve, especially in the areas of those schools that are in decline? We have a tendency not to talk about that publicly, and I think it should be expressed.”

Those schools that suffered declines included Fifth Ward Elementary, LaPlace Elementary, West St. John Elementary and East St. John High.

The combined losses at those schools overtook the gains of their counterparts, serving to lower St. John Parish Public Schools’ overall rating 1.4 points to an overall 83.8, which knocked the District’s overall grade rating from B to C.

With just more than half an academic year remaining, the charge to local educators and their administrations is to inspire growth in our students’ performances.

Concerning is the drop at East St. John High (easily the largest public or private school in the parish) which fell from a 2015-16 score of 80.2 to 75.9 for 2016-17.

Two of the other schools — Fifth Ward and LaPlace elementarys — that fell in performance feed students into ESJH, making potential future growth more challenging.

When charged with Sanders’ request for specifics, District administrators did not hesitate in offering plans for improvements, much of which, School Board members were told, had been in place for months.

Fifth Ward Elementary broke out a completely different grade level configuration this academic year, now serving prekindergarten through fourth grade students only in an effort to focus instruction and resources on those targeted grade levels.

Via grant, students at the troubled elementary schools are also receiving help from TAP (System for Teacher and Student Advancement) master teachers who help local teachers with career advancement, professional growth, instructionally focused accountability and competitive compensation.

Weekly and daily tests in some cases have been implemented to assess the standing of individual students, which lead to custom intervention plans and instruction.

Tests administered at the schools are also being shared with administrators beyond campus walls in an effort to make sure the best possible testing is being implemented.

At the high school, greater focus is being placed on students who have declared they don’t intend on attending a four-year university. Those students are receiving tailored credential and graduation help to ensure they earn a high school diploma and are career or trade school ready.

“We’re really looking deeply into the data and digging down to that,” Assistant Superintendent Heidi Trosclair said.

School-specific concerns discussed included one underperforming 2016-17 grade level at West St. John Elementary due to the extended illness absence of a teacher and increased class levels of more than 30 students at LaPlace Elementary.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.