Dularge Middle sets bar for educating the poor

Tuesday, Feb. 22
February 21, 2011
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Tuesday, Feb. 22
February 21, 2011
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For the past three years, Dularge Middle School has been a constant in the state Department of Education’s data-driven determination of which public schools with a poverty-majority population best educate their students.

Its principal, in her sixth year at the school, credits as the keys to success a faculty “without a weak link” and a constant, multi-faceted educational approach with an emphasis on data, grading consistency and teaching teachers in addition to the students.

“[Teachers] get that continuous learning,” Principal Cheryl Degruise said. “They are very open to it, and it just has to continue if we’re going to be on top of our game. We realize that we have to continue developing as a staff to give our kids what they need.

“If we’re going to teach kids what they need to know, then we need to know what it is that they need to know.”

Six Tri-parish schools earned the 2011 Louisiana Department of Education’s High-Performing, High-Poverty distinction, a list compiled of schools that have plus-100 School Performance Scores in consecutive years and at least a 65 percent poverty rate.

Bayou Black Elementary (104.3 SPS), Dularge Middle (112.4), Montegut Elementary (103.2) and Oakshire Elementary (105.0) schools in Terrebonne Parish and Hattie A. Watts Elementary (109.6) and Virgil Brown Glencoe Charter School (112.2) in St. Mary Parish were among the 56 schools in 30 school districts across the state to earn the distinction.

Dularge Middle, with 78.1 percent of its 178 students eligible for federally funded free- or reduced-lunch, is the highest scoring high-poverty school in the Tri-parish area and one of 13 state schools to make the 4-year-old list in three consecutive years. Its 78 percent poverty rate also ranks highest among the six Tri-parish schools.

“We feel we’re awesome,” Degruise said. “We’re great.”

Because of the school’s recent success, the 40-year-old – who holds a bachelor’s degree in education and master’s in administration from Nicholls State University – is one of 15 principals at similarly characterized schools across Louisiana to take part in the state superintendent’s War College Initiative, which offers successful administrators as coaches to high-priority, under-performing schools.

Degruise coaches two schools; one in Jefferson Parish and one in Calcasieu Parish.

“It’s been a learning experience for me, because I’m able to network with other administrators,” she said. “Although some of these schools are high priority, meaning they are low-performing, they have some good things in place. But a lot of [the problem], I find, has to do with the leadership team. It’s true when they say that the two things that really affect student achievement is the teacher in the front of that classroom and the administrator running that school. I’ve definitely seen that first-hand being in the War College.”

SPS are calculated for K-6th grade schools using student test scores (90 percent) and attendance (10 percent). Schools with a 7th and 8th grade configuration receive an SPS based on attendance (5 percent), dropouts (5 percent) and student test scores (90 percent). High schools receive an SPS based on test scores (70 percent) and their graduation index (30 percent).

In order for a school to be named to the HPHP list, it must not be listed as a “School in Decline,” which is a label assigned to schools whose SPS is below 110 and dropped by 2.5 points or more in an academic year.

Also, at least 65 percent of the school’s students must be enrolled in the federally funded free- or reduced-price meal program, which is used as an indicator of poverty.

Degruise said that from her experience, the challenge of teaching children from a background of poverty is existent, but it is neither overwhelming nor a valid excuse for mediocrity.

“It’s never an excuse,” she said. “We have this attitude here that there is just no exception to the rule. This is what you’re getting. There is no excuse. Let’s go.

“I haven’t seen it to be a challenge for the kids in this community. I really haven’t. Why is that? I really do believe that that [credit] goes to the staff. The color of your skin, how much you make, it’s not a factor here.”

Two more Terrebonne schools – Dularge Elementary (106.9 SPS) and Greenwood Middle (102.5) – have the opportunity to make the 2012 HPHP list if their plus-100 SPS doesn’t drop by 2.5 or more points.

Margaret Cage, first-year principal and former master teacher at Greenwood Middle, said her school has a “120 percent” chance to be named a HPHP school next year.

“I’m pretty confident, and I don’t let up,” she said. “Everybody knows student achievement is a top priority here.”

Cage said the school has made the list a first concern and has worked to cure its deficiencies through an after-school tutoring system that targets math and the ELA exam. She said approximately 67 percent of her students attend the session and reiterated the idea that continuous staff development plays a big role in a school’s success. “We would not be as successful as we are if our teachers were not continually life-long learners.”

Cage said earning the distinction would be “extremely, extremely pleasurable” due to the transition in the community’s perception of Greenwood Middle.

“Greenwood in the past was not such a great school to attend. That was the opinion of many of the people in the community, and I feel we have come a long way with increasing the scores, and I feel like I was a part of it because I was here in the beginning when the scores started to increase,” Cage said.

“I just want to continue to be that beacon of light in the community where they know their children will be safe and very well-educated once they reach Greenwood Middle School.”

DOE began releasing its HPHP school list annually in 2008. Throughout the state, 66.2 percent of nearly 700,000 students qualify for the free and reduced meal program.

Dularge Middle School made the state Department of Education’s High-Performing High-Poverty list for the third consecutive year. Principal Cheryl Degruise attributed the result to the faculty, which she says is always open to improving its craft. COURTESY PHOTO