Inside Report: St. Helena’s work is just beginning

The St. Helena Parish school district has been granted its wish of regaining control of St. Helena Central Middle School from the state-run Recovery School District.

Now comes the hard part.

The RSD and the school system have come to an agreement that St. Helena will resume power over the middle school after this school year ends. The Recovery School District has operated the school since 2010 following years of poor academic performances.

St. Helena will close the middle school facility and split the students between St. Helena Central Elementary and St. Helena Central High schools.

The formal agreement also allows the state to visit the idea of taking over the elementary and high schools if the schools do not reach at least a D on their performance grades by fall 2016. Both schools have received F’s for years.

St. Helena also has agreed to hire an RSD-approved, third-party organization to help manage its efforts for an academic turnaround of the elementary and high schools.

In other words, the state is giving the St. Helena school district a three-year window to improve its schools or face the possibility of takeover once again.

Improving education is an uphill battle in a rural parish such as St. Helena. Resources are limited because of the parish’s small population and limited tax base. Not to mention, it’s difficult to re-educate students after years of substandard education.

St. Helena Superintendent Kelli Joseph is optimistic about the future of the schools.

She is quick to point out the high school is only three points away from a D, while the elementary school is only 11 points away.

Joseph lauded the agreement with the RSD and was emphatic that the state is not giving St. Helena a short leash.

“We know that we’re doing what we need to do to get our kids to a high level of proficiency,” Joseph said.

If there’s anybody who can reach that goal, it’s the Joseph-led St. Helena school district.

Joseph has sparked a massive turnaround since being hired as St. Helena’s school superintendent in 2011. She has trimmed budget deficits, spearheaded a plan for new facilities and refocused the schools’ curricula.

If anything, the schools’ futures already look brighter considering the school system and state finally appear ready to work together after years of arguing over the schools’ direction.

Joseph said the school system and state already have discussed the organization the system will hire for third-party consulting. She said the school system will use state grants to pay that organization.

And giving St. Helena its middle-school students back is a sign that the RSD has faith in the school system to turn things around.

Both sides also agreed three years is just the right amount of time St. Helena needs, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said.

“Three years is sufficient time to really enact and make significant progress on the transformation strategy,” Dobard said. “We never want to feel like we’re languishing too long to transform the lives of young people.”

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the school system’s decades-old desegregation lawsuit, and must sign off on any decisions relevant to the school system, hasn’t OK’d the deal yet.

Both sides are optimistic Brady will approve giving the St. Helena school district another chance at running its own middle- school education plan.

“I believe that the agreement ... is a decision that was in the best interest of our children,” Joseph said.

Robert Stewart, a reporter in The Advocate’s Florida Parishes bureau, can be reached at rstewart@theadvocate.com.