DONALDSONVILLE — The Ascension Parish School Board has been highlighted by a national education watchdog group as one of five school districts across the United States working to attract and keep strong teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools.
The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on improving academic achievement among low-income and minority students, also cited Ascension Parish school officials for giving educators feedback and support during the school day to reflect on instructional practice.
Ascension Parish is one of 19 school districts in Louisiana to participate in the Teacher Advancement Program, a national initiative to attract, develop and motivate talented people to the teaching profession and retain them, which the Education Trust report cited.
Four Donaldsonville and three Gonzales schools participate in the TAP system, officials said.
“Once teachers (in Ascension) saw that the more rigorous performance evaluations were employed, first and foremost, to improve practice, rather than as a punitive tool, most embraced the new culture of shared learning and responsibility that TAP brought to their schools,” The Education Trust report stated.
“We have turned a corner where when you ask teachers to come to these schools, they say it is an honor,” Jennifer Tuttleton, director of school improvement in Ascension, said in the report.
Other school districts highlighted by The Education Trust report were Boston Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenberg (N.C.) Public Schools, Fresno (Calif.) Unified School District and Sacramento City (Calif.) Unified School District.
Among the findings and suggestions outlined in the Education Trust report are the following:
- School systems should pair efforts for improving outdated teacher evaluation systems with the policy and culture changes that must accompany them.
- Districts should employ common-sense strategies, such as placing quality teachers with the students who need them most and recognizing, rewarding and supporting good teachers.
- A school’s culture — not issues with students or salaries — is what matters most to a teacher’s job performance and retention, particularly in high-poverty schools.
“Making evaluations more meaningful is a critical step toward improving our schools. But being able to determine who our strongest teachers and principals are doesn’t mean that struggling students will magically get more of them,” said Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust. “We have to be intentional about creating the kinds of supportive working environments in our high-poverty and low-performing schools that will make them more attractive to our strongest teachers.”
Daryl Comery said he has seen first hand the growth and changes at Donaldsonville High School.
A 1995 graduate of Donaldsonville High, Comery returned to his alma mater as a special education teacher in 2005 after five years in Assumption Parish. He touted the benefits of Ascension’s TAP system.
According to the Education Trust report, the TAP focuses on “ongoing applied professional learning, instructionally focused accountability, opportunities for career development through multiple career paths and performance-based compensation” to improve teachers’ instruction.
“I had a mentor teacher that was there anytime I needed them,” Comery said. “There are master teachers on campus anytime we needed them.”
The school’s administration also “provided great help,” he said.
Comery began as a career teacher and then became a mentor. This school year, he said he will begin serving as a master teacher, the highest level in the TAP system that goes beyond traditional classroom teaching.
“They give everybody an opportunity,” Comery said. “If you’re willing to be there and work with the kids, there’s always an opportunity to grow in the district.”
Roxanne Skias said she believes in the idea of shared responsibility and collaboration.
Skias has spent 27 years with the Ascension Parish school district. Early in her career, she aspired to be a principal but quickly learned her heart was in the classroom, not administration.
After about 20 years teaching mostly fifth-graders, she became a teacher coach before returning to the classroom as a mentor teacher at Lowery Middle School.
“That was the plan all along,” Skias said, adding that being a mentor allowed her to remain “directly connected to instruction” but also offered her additional responsibilities many teachers lack.
After a year, Skias became a master teacher, and last year moved to Gonzales Middle School, which joined the TAP program during the 2011-12 school year. “I’m still a teacher, but I’m a more effective teacher than I was because of the support not only that I get from professional development but also that I can give through mentorship,” Skias said.
Through the TAP program, students’ test scores and teachers’ attitudes improved at both Lowery and Gonzales middle schools, Skias said.