Thursday, August 25, 2011

Iberville Education Reform

 Iberville Parish Math, Science, & Arts Academy students start off the year with a free laptop computer for students in upper grades. This is just one example of how technology is integrated into the entire school environment.

New Laptops

Math and Science are emphasized, yet when you talk to individual students you find that they are most often even more excited about the art and performance offerings at the new Academies. Apparently the genius of this reform schooling concept is to offer a variety of great and exciting programs that make attending school fun and challenging.

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.
  • Spanish club in Costa Rica
  • 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.
For years, Iberville parish has struggled with a high dropout rate and a very low graduation rate.  Starting this year, the Academies are expected to help greatly improve those numbers.

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.
Cavalier and Cancienne with plans


Monday, August 22, 2011

More RSD Cover-up and Effective Education Reform Where the Reformers Least Expect it!

A couple of Times-Picayune reporters are using public records requests to finally bring to light major cover-ups of wrongdoing in the charter schools of the Recovery District. The first, were revelations by reporter Andrew Vancour that forced BESE to terminate the charter of the Abramson charter school based on child protection issues. The latest story came out Saturday and is by reporter Sarah Carr on cover-up of possible LEAP cheating at Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans.

The revelation of possible LEAP cheating in the Recovery District is not surprising. Many allegations have been leaking out about teachers having grades changed by administrators to pass failing students in the RSD, special education students being "helped" a little too much on LEAP, and different students having identical test papers. This latest story is based on complaints by up to 20% of the teachers at Miller-McCoy that students were prepped for LEAP with practice materials that could only have come from breaches of test security.

But the real shocker in the story is that State DOE policies for handling alleged breaches of test security almost encourage systematic cover-up of violations. That's because once the Department determines that violations of test policy may have occurred, they turn the investigation over to the local school system, for their recommendations and possible corrective actions including the voiding of test scores. As the testing experts quoted in the story point out, "there is a conflict of interest all the way up the line in investigating such allegations". Such conflict is even more pronounced in the case of charter schools that function as their own local school systems. Such schools often have hand picked boards of directors picked by the charter organizers who often serve as the administrators for the charter who are often the very people implicated in the cheating allegations!

The complaints of possible cheating were made by a group of teachers who said they were given the questionable practice materials by their administrators. The students had alerted the teachers to the claim that the practice questions were almost identical to the actual test. But when the school Directors conducted their investigation of the matter they did not bother to question a single teacher about the allegations. They only questioned the administrators. No wonder they concluded there was no wrongdoing!

One of the experts consulted by the reporter said that this process is like the IRS telling a taxpayer: "We have a problem with your tax return. Would you look it over?"

What's even more disconcerting about the DOE and RSD handling of this matter, is that the Department had the authority to void LEAP scores based on its own investigation. And in the case of a non-charter school accused of the same violation, in the RSD, scores were voided and administrators disciplined. (Yes this has happened before) One parent advocate said that the state wants the charters in New Orleans to succeed so badly that they look the other way!

All this makes us wonder; just how valid are the claims of "dramatic gains" in the Recovery District?

Did you know that effective education reform really is happening in Louisiana?

Later this week The Louisiana Educator will examine A new Education strategy that is attracting hundreds of students back from private schools.

Enrollment is open to all students
It's not a charter school
It's not a magnet school
It's not even a school!

But it is the most effective reform seen in recent years in the Iberville Parish school system. How do we know it's effective? Because students who had left the public schools in Iberville Parish and fled to private schools are returning to the public schools of Iberville in droves to participate in this truly innovative educational setting!

I'm still working on this post so please bookmark the Louisiana Educator and click on this site on Thursday, August 25 for a good description on how the Iberville education reform works. Maybe it could be tried in your school system!