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SCHOOL BOARD SPOTLIGHT: Candidates debate plan forward for District 5

LAPLACE — Sherry DeFrancesch, District 5 incumbent for the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board, sees a promising local school system that will trend toward improvement with increased safety measures and incentivized teacher recruitment.

Challenger Clarissa “Reesce” Alvis, a school bus driver for St. John Parish Schools, sees a system desperately in need of discipline, effective curricula and equity in employment.

The two will face off in a School Board election Nov. 6 to represent families residing in Riverlands Estates, Carrollwood, Madewood, West Fifth Street and surrounding neighborhoods in LaPlace.

DeFrancesch, an 8-year School Board member, said she takes a direct and common sense approach to voting for policies that best help students. She’s seen progress during her tenure and hopes to see long-term plans come to fruition.

“The District has a large strategic plan to get our individual and District scores up, and it’s already happening,” DeFrancesch said. “We’re on a trajectory up.”

She cited professional development for teachers as a method for success but added there is still work to be done in attracting and maintaining certified instructors.

“We have great benefits, health insurance and retirement, but we want to keep an environment in place where teachers would want to stay for many years,” DeFrancesch said. “We’re looking to find ways to increase the pay to be more competitive with our surrounding parishes.”

According to Alvis, stagnant pay is a District-wide concern impacting all positions, from teachers to support staff.

She said the School Board has permitted the superintendent to create positions with higher paid salaries, which does not always align with years of experience.

For example, Alvis said St. John Parish Schools salary funds pay for four master teachers per grade, per school, while St. Charles Parish has one master teacher per two grades who travels between schools.

School environment is another prime concern for DeFrancesch and Alvis.

DeFrancesch said tailoring schools for safety is a top priority, especially in light of school violence threats that have occurred in the past year.

She said St. John Parish must promote security in access points, with care to not create a military environment.

“We have instituted one-point entries at our schools, and we’re investigating the costs of increasing security with some possible sensor guards at those entries,” DeFrancesch said.

DeFrancesch said schools could benefit from a security camera system and police officers placed as needed.

Alvis agrees with instituting cameras in classrooms that can be referenced in case of disputes between students, parents or teachers.

“That way, we don’t need to get student and teacher statements to figure out what happened,” Alvis said. “The film does not lie.”

Cameras will help promote discipline, which Alvis cited as one of the greatest problems faced by the school system.

“We have no punishment and no structure,” Alvis said. “A kid gets into a fight or curses out a teacher or bus driver, and they get sent to in-school suspension. There are no loss of privileges to hold students and parents accountable.”

Alvis said separating middle school students from k-8 elementary schools and into their own junior high school buildings would cut down conflicts.

According to Alvis, it’s up to each school to staff the front office with friendly faces who will welcome parents to the schools and inform them of their rights. It’s also up to the parents to get involved, according to Alvis, whether it means visiting schools, reading newsletters or talking to children each night.

She believes in initiating after grad follow-up studies to see how many St. John Parish graduates drop out of college. If the numbers are high, as she suspects, there is a need to readdress curriculum at the high school level.

Alvis has heard concerns from teachers that the new Tier One curriculum is incomplete and puts a focus on electronic resources that not all students have.

DeFrancesch said curriculum changes are competitive with neighboring parishes and part of the District’s plan to improve test scores. She sees implementation of the arts as another plus for St. John Schools. The next step, according to DeFrancesch, is to expand on music programs by implementing fine arts and arts history classes at each school.

“Every student should have access to the arts because it increases their core curriculum learning,” DeFrancesch said. “We are the only school system between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that can say we have music programs in every school, and that has been a tremendous enhancement.”

DeFrancesch said her no-nonsense contributions have played a role in building St. John Parish into a lifelong community where people can send their children.

Alvis disagreed, adding, as a parent, she’s faced an unresponsive School Board. She said DeFrancesch is known for staying silent at meetings and voting in favor of the crowd.

“It’s definitely my style,” DeFrancesch said. “I am one that prefers to sit back and take in information, but I see what people are saying. I can try to talk more. I believe I can make thoughtful, wise choices that will benefit all of our students.”

Alvis said she feels School Board members are in the job for the insurance and the stipend, without the passion for helping others.

“I can show what I do on a day-to-day basis actually helping people when they reach out by Facebook or text message,” Alvis said. “Whoever wins, make sure you make a change. Make yourselves available. Whoever wins, pray for us, because we need it.”