Education trudging along, despite cuts

From jails to trucks: Law enforcement makes significant strides
February 22, 2017
Coastal protection gets a boost on many fronts
February 22, 2017
From jails to trucks: Law enforcement makes significant strides
February 22, 2017
Coastal protection gets a boost on many fronts
February 22, 2017

At the corner of St. Charles Street and Tunnel Blvd. in Houma sits a near-empty lot, barely reminiscent of the collection of memories stored there.

Gone are just about all of the buildings that housed generations of schoolchildren, replaced by flattened earth, lumber and heavy equipment. All that remains standing is an old gym those same children, including Super Bowl winner Frank Clark, played in for decades.

More important than the departed structures are the absent children who were at Southdown Elementary as recently as last May. They have been shuttled off to the vacant Dularge Elementary and Greenwood Middle schools while the operators of that heavy equipment get to work.

If all goes according to plan, some of the younger children who departed Southdown could return to a brand-new, two-story school. Terrebonne Parish School District officials are planning for the new Southdown, which the district raised about $20.1 million in bonds to build, to be ready for the 2018-19 school year. TPSD Superintendent Philip Martin said the rebuilding of Southdown is an accomplishment that will outlive any administrator’s career.

“I consider it a privilege to be a part of something that significant. Most people probably don’t think about it, but in terms of the school, it’s fairly permanent. It’s something that generations of kids will go through,” Martin said.

While Martin expressed pride in Southdown’s construction, he preferred to focus on the things that happen inside the district’s schools. This year, the TPSD’s letter grade from the Louisiana Department of Education jumped up from 90.5 points last year to 95.1 this year. The school district’s grade remained a “B,” but Terrebonne moved considerably closer to the 100-point threshold to become an “A” school.

The school district’s number of A schools remained the same, although South Terrebonne High School replaced Terrebonne High School on the list after THS just dropped out of the A range with a 99.3 grade. Overall, 21 of the TPSD’s 32 schools that received grades the previous year saw its grades improve.

Martin credited the community, the district’s teachers and the students with the gains made in Terrebonne. He said the TPSD is still focusing on areas, such as the graduation rate and certain end of course exams, it has the greatest room to improve going forward. Martin said he thinks the TPSD can get to an A next year if it stays the course, even with the DOE changing the grading rubric this month to put a larger emphasis on growth over performance.

“I just wish we could get a set of rules and stick to them for a while. By the time I learn one, we’ve got another one to learn. Understanding the rules of the game helps you succeed in the game,” Martin said.

Martin made a point to particularly highlight the work done by Terrebonne’s educators, saying nobody, aside from parents, is as important to student success. He said the school district has made a concerted recruiting effort and has a strong retention rate with teachers, something he credits to the district’s culture and the welcoming community. Martin said that retention is important because it keeps the parish’s children under the guidance of the best they have to offer.

“Teaching done correctly is a very special, very difficult, thing that not most people in the world can do. It is a gift,” Martin said.

Next door, Lafourche Parish will consider putting its money where its mouth is in terms of keeping its educational talent. Lafourche voters will vote on the Apr. 29 election on whether to put a one-cent sales tax increase on themselves for a teacher pay raise. That election will also feature a vote on allowing the Lafourche Parish School District to raise $80 million in bonds, which would be spent on construction projects in the district.

Lafourche’s teachers requested a raise at an opportune time, considering the school district’s accomplishments. Lafourche became an A district this year with a 102.2 score, up from 95.8 the previous year. The district doubled its number of A schools from six to 12, and 23 of 30 schools saw their scores improve. LPSD Superintendent Matthews said the district’s big jump was the result of a team effort.

“Working, of course, with all of our teachers on understanding all of the content, and the teachers working with the students in turn using a lot of strategies and of course our parents as well, doing homework at home. So it’s a deep commitment on all of our stakeholders’ parts to help move the school district forward,” Matthews said.


In higher education, both Nicholls State University and Fletcher Technical Community College were able to make firsts in the face of budgetary uncertainty.

Nicholls saw its enrollment grow for the third straight semester, up to 5,763 total students taking full-time or part-time course loads at the university. This year’s figure was only a modest, nine-person increase from spring 2016. The fall 2016 headcount was 6,267 (fall enrollment is typically higher than in the spring), a 103 increase from fall 2015. Nicholls President Murphy said the small but continued increase is a sign there is still a demand for higher education, and NSU is finding a way to fulfill that demand.

“To me it says one thing: that is that students still want to get a college education, and they’re still coming to do that,” Murphy said.

Murphy credited the increased enrollment to both recruitment and retention gains in Thibodaux. The university is using new software that personalizes messages to prospective students, and recruiters are empowered to offer more money, up to a certain amount, to a wavering student on the spot. On the retention side, Nicholls revamped how it teaches its freshman math course while also offering a one-credit study skills course in the spring to any freshman who struggled in their first semester.

“We spend a lot of effort getting [students]. We don’t have to re-spend that effort. So, when we get them once we want to keep them moving along,” Murphy said.

Nicholls is still considerably far from Murphy’s stated enrollment goal of 8,000. Murphy said if things go well, including less yearly budget cuts to the state university system, Nicholls could reach that figure within three to five years. However, Murphy acknowledges the goal is an ambitious one and that his primary focus is on growth overall.

“It’s a big, stretch goal. Emphasis on stretch. If we don’t get there-if we get halfway there, we’ll be doing really good,” Murphy said.

Murphy highlighted the university’s culinary program as one with room to grow, in part due to a $68,000 renovation to its kitchen laboratory in Gouaux Hall. The renovations include new flooring, dishwashers, ovens, tables and kitchen equipment. One classroom has been completed and the other is underway. Nicholls also had its grand reopening of the Al and Mary Danos Theater in Talbot Hall at the beginning of this school year. The theater underwent $9.6 million in renovations, including a revamp for ampitheater acoustics, updated lighting and a climate-controlled room for the university’s two Steinway grand pianos.

Nicholls started its Bridge to Independence program this past fall. The program is offered to students who have intellectual disabilities or are on the autism spectrum. The program is the only of its kind in the state to be certified by the Federal Department of Education, thus opening up the opportunity for federal student aid. Depending on qualification, some students can earn a four-year degree while others can earn a two-year certificate with a focus on developing skills to be gainfully employed after leaving Nicholls.

“Think about somebody with these challenges. We’re not talking about what are we going to do today? We’re talking about what’s life going to be like,” Murphy said.

In Schriever, Fletcher has been able to celebrate firsts while facing the realities of a limited budget. Fletcher Chancellor Kristine Strickland has just completed her first year in charge of the technical college and has spent her time working with industry and community partners to re-evaluate the school’s curriculum. She said Fletcher is working on short-term training courses for those in oil and gas and manufacturing workers. The school is also going to launch its first two completely online courses, in business administration and criminal justice, in the upcoming fall semester. Strickland said the addition of online courses makes Fletcher’s opportunities more accessible to adult learners and those who cannot drive to campus every day.

“For those who have full-time jobs or family responsibilities, we’re trying to figure out a way to get an education while still balancing all of that. We want to make that as easy as possible,” Strickland said.

Fletcher is also developing courses for the coastal protection and restoration industry. According to Strickland, the program will start out as short-term training in the fall before eventually growing into one that offers degrees. The short-term classes will focus on getting those in other industries with related skills used to coastal restoration vocabulary and equipment.

“There’s a lot of transferrable skills and a lot of transferrable crafts,” Strickland said. “Given that there is a focus with the RESTORE Act and some of the funding that’s coming down from various agencies that are specifically around rebuilding our coast, I think we’re going to see a few years out a demand for people to work in those areas.”

Fletcher has seen its share of challenges in Strickland’s first year, including suffering from some layoffs in the face of decreasing state appropriations. Fletcher’s chancellor said the budgetary reality means she has had to reconsider the college’s core offerings and focus on allocating its resource as efficiently as possible. A major part of that is staying involved with the local industry and community to figure out what programs are essential to developing the Bayou Region’s workforce.

“One of the things that the community college sector is committed to is the idea of regrowing the American middle class,” Strickland said. “That’s very important to us, is to help take individuals who may be working a minimum wage job – sometimes it’s a few weeks, sometimes it’s a few semesters – but with that minimal training, get them to the point where they can go out and get a good job, support their families, get the benefits of health insurance and things like that that are so important.”

Southdown schoolKARL GOMMEL | THE TIMES