Iberville Parish is split by the Mississippi River with the majority of the school population on the west side of the river. But Superintendent Edward Cancienne knew that if the new Math, Science, & Arts Academy was to get full public support, he would need to offer a great program for children on both sides of the river. Since there are no bridges in the area, that meant a smaller version of the Academy for the East side. According to newspaper reports, parents on the East side are ecstatic about the opportunities for their children offered at the brand new state-of-the-art, energy efficient facility in St Gabriel. Chuck Johnson directs operations at the East facility. A bond issue passed in 2008 has allowed construction of new buildings and lots of enrichment programs on both sides of the river.
In fact parents on both sides of the river are so impressed that in just 3 years a total of 780 students have transferred from private schools back into the public school system. For years the Iberville public school system had been plagued by the flight of serious top students (both black and white) to private schools. Now the kids are back, and the new concept Academies have a waiting list of over 400. Elvis Cavalier, Chief Academic Officer for the Parish, who runs this program says that more classes are being added as new facilities are built. The West campus will soon have a STEM wing addition that will also add more classrooms.
So what is the secret of this impressive success story? Cancienne and Cavalier are not what today are considered "education reformers". They are more like old line professional educators who work with traditional schools. But if great offerings, teacher and student engagement, and parental involvement are measures of true reform, then these guys are successful education reformers. I tried to dig below the surface to report to you what I think makes this concept work. None of the ideas are new. They are simply put together in a formula that works for Iberville Parish:
- Excellence in all programs All students are exposed to accelerated classes in all areas of math, science and the arts.
- Exclusivity All parents want their child enrolled in a special program that is open only to the best. Yet the Academy programs have no entrance requirements for most students. Once enrolled, all students are required to maintain a 2.5 GPA and must maintain an excellent discipline record to stay at the academy. The program accepts first students that are classified as gifted & talented and their siblings but that's only 15% of the student body. All others are just regular kids who are committed to excellence. Most students are selected by lottery. According to Cavalier even with the strict rules the program has only a 4% student turnover rate.
- Total Commitment from teachers and administrators to the concepts of the Academies. Teachers don't mind making extra efforts when they feel appreciated by their administrators and parents.
- Balanced enrollment. The Academies maintain a 50:50 black-white ratio to ensure diversity.
- No brain drain. The Academy program is not classified as a school. Therefore all student LEAP and iLEAP scores go back to the student's home school. Everybody benefits from the high performance of the Academy students. Cancienne believes that students in the home schools are motivated to perform better by opportunity to attend the Academy.
- Rewards. A great motivation for students are the special trips and perks for students who score at the mastery level on state tests. The kids I talked to were most excited about performing in the Orchestra and in plays.
- Dual Enrollment. High school students pursue dual enrollment college credit at every opportunity. Student body president Kristen Ellis expects to graduate with 30 hours of college credit courses.
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According to Superintendent Cancienne, "The Math, Science & Arts Academies in Iberville have created a special culture of excellence and high achievement."
To me this is real education reform that works.
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