Common Core: Lafourche schools aim to do more

Meet the new boss: Howell keeping NSU on track
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McDermott leaving Morgan City
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Meet the new boss: Howell keeping NSU on track
August 6, 2013
McDermott leaving Morgan City
August 6, 2013

School districts throughout the state are continually being asked to improve achievement at cut costs, and Lafourche Parish’s public schools are not exempt.

Yet the top-performing district in the Tri-parish area, according to state figures, is asking itself to do more as lesson plans are amended to incorporate uniform, increasingly rigorous standards shared throughout much of the country.

“Our student scores are up across the board,” Lafourche Superintendent of public schools Jo Ann Matthews said. “Our ACT scores have improved, and we expect continued improvement as we move closer and closer to full implementation of all of the Common Core State Standards.”

Lafourche Parish posted a 107.3 District Performance Score in 2012, up 22 percent from 2008 and tops in the Tri-parish area. The score garnered a ‘B’ grade from the state, making Lafourche one of 28 districts to score at least a ‘B.’ The DPS assesses individual student scores on standardized tests, attendance and dropout and graduation rates.

Still, the public schools district is striving to do better in adherence to the ever-increasing standards Matthews mentioned.

Common Core, a national initiative, aims to set knowledge and skill benchmarks across subject areas in an attempt to train students to levels competitive with their peers across the nation and worldwide as they approach college and/or careers. Only Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the standards.

Louisiana adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010 for English language arts and math. State standardized tests judge whether students are meeting the benchmarks, with additional test items phased in on an annual basis through 2014-15.

“What we want to remind our parents of … they need to help their students, their children, understand Common Core,” Matthews said. “They’re going to have to have them read more in regard to nonfiction works and understand that the tests will measure more critical thinking skills. They’re going to see lessons that may look a little bit differently; we’re going to ask students to do a higher order of thinking tasks in the classes.”

Matthews said the district will send out sample packets to help ease the transition into new methods.

District goals, as laid out by its proposed five-year plan, which goes before the full school board tonight, focus on improving student achievement in eight calculated areas. They include:

– Percentage of students prepared for Kindergarten, from the current 55 percent to 73 percent by fall 2017. Educators use developmental skills checklist benchmarks, which are aligned with Common Core.

– Percentage of students arriving in fourth grade on time and on level, which means passing the ELA and math LEAP test, from the current 54.8 percent to 67.2 percent in five years.

– Percentage of students arriving in ninth grade on time and on grade level, from the current 48.8 percent to 51.8 percent by 2017. The eighth-grade LEAP exam gauges this level.

– Percentages of 11th grade students on track to college, from 48 percent now to 58 percent in five years. The benchmark in place is an ACT composite score of 20.

The district also wants to increase its cohort graduation rate from 79.3 percent to 80.6 percent; have at least 15 percent of its graduates pass at least one Advanced Placement test and have half of its ninth graders score at least a 17 composite on the ACT Explore exam.

Instructors whose students regularly fall short of benchmarks will be provided professional development classes, according to the plan.

The district’s charter schools are also expected to grow over five years.

The college-prep-focused Bayou Community Academy, which opened in fall 2012, is expected to continue adding a grade level, or roughly 52 students, each year until it reaches the eighth grade for the 2015-16 year.

Meanwhile, the Virtual Academy of Lafourche, an online charter school reaching grades 2-12, is expected to increase its enrollment by 10 percent each year, with a 160-student goal for 2016-17. Eleven percent of the online school’s students are classified under special education.

In addition to academics, the school district is working quickly to boost aesthetics.

Construction on five new buildings, part of a $50 million bond authorization granted by parish voters in 2012, should be complete by 2016. These projects include: a career magnet school, a lower elementary school in Raceland, an elementary school in Larose and new elementary schools in Bayou Blue and the Sixth Ward.

Roughly 60 Lafourche students participated in the state voucher program last year, which provides subsidies to students at lagging public schools to attend private schools, Matthews said. “We didn’t see that big of an impact,” she said.

On the same ballot on which voters authorized the bond issue, they also approved a rededication of 2 property tax mills to fund increasing state retirement system costs to Lafourche. While the additional $1.5 million per year has helped offset a line of recurring budget strains, Matthews is still wary of cost increases versus minimized state and federal funding.

“I think it’s a big issue and it’s going to continue to be,” Matthews said. “I think we’re going to continue to see additional cost increases.”