Academy opens in Opelousas
OPELOUSAS — More than 150 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students began their first day of class at the new J.S. Clark Academy on Wednesday, ahead of St. Landry Parish public school students’ return on Aug. 10.
“Everybody’s got first-day jitters. We’re excited,” said Tiffanie Lewis, the charter school’s executive director, while directing students to the cafeteria or office and answering parents’ questions.
Lewis said 176 students enrolled in the new charter school, operated by the nonprofit organization Outreach Community Development Corp. In December, the state Board of Secondary and Elementary Education decided to allow J.S. Clark to open in the 2012-13 school year after the nonprofit group’s previous requests to both the state board and the St. Landry Parish School Board were denied.
About 44,000 students attended 98 charter schools in Louisiana last school year, and 13 more were scheduled to open this school year, according to Louisiana Department of Education data. The schools are publicly funded and the majority are independently operated.
At J.S. Clark, students are in class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with an optional extended day to 5:30 p.m. Project-based learning and technology will be part of students’ daily lessons. On the campus, traditional textbooks will be replaced with e-books downloaded onto each student’s iPad. Classrooms will soon be outfitted with Apple TVs that will enable teachers to tap into students’ iPads to view the work and display it to the class, Lewis said. Software the school has acquired allows for immediate results and analysis of students’ end-of-unit test performances, cutting time teachers could need to cater instruction to students’ needs, she said.
“They’ll have immediate feedback and be able to adjust instruction based on that feedback,” she said.
The opportunity to help build a school from the ground-up attracted Terewnce McCutcheon back home to Acadiana. Last year, McCutcheon coached women’s basketball at Caldwell Community College in North Carolina and will teach physical education and health at J.S. Clark.
“I liked the creativity of what they wanted to do here and wanted the opportunity to affect some of these kids’ lives,” McCutcheon said.
Sixth-grader Ashton Pitts, 11, was one of 176 students ready for the first day of school.
His mom, Arika Pitts, said she chose the school for her son because she thought he’d receive more attention in the classroom.
“He needs extra help and extra time. In the public school, they didn’t work with him enough. I feel over here they have teachers who are trained and devoted to taking extra time to help our babies out,” Pitts said.
Dressed in a uniform complete with a burgundy vest and plaid tie, Ashton said he was ready for a new start.
“It’s a new school and I get to meet new people,” he said.
Before heading to their first class of the day, students met in grade-level groups for a brief welcome and overview of school rules and expectations from Dean of
Students Victor Lewis and Principal Marcil Seals.
Victor Lewis told a group of fifth-graders that their new school is a bit different from their old one and they’d be switching classes rather than having one teacher all day.
One major rule students need to remember: no bullying, Seals told them.
“We do not have any bullies or bullying going on at this school,” Seals said.
He instructed students to inform a teacher or adult on campus if they witness students teasing or picking fights with others.
“This is a special school. ... We have the smartest and best-looking students in Opelousas,” he told the students before they filed out with their homeroom teachers.
In one of the classrooms, English and social studies teacher Kyla Cormier laid out two simple first-day rules for her students: “Be nice and listen to what I say.”
“This is going to be a different kind of classroom,” she told her first class of 16 fifth-graders. “I expect y’all to talk. Y’all are kids. But when I say, ‘quiet,’ I expect you to be quiet.”
Last year, Cormier taught at Carencro High School. She also holds a master’s degree in education administration. It was research for her master’s on charter schools that led her to apply to J.S. Clark, she said.
“If they have the right leadership, they’ll work,” she said.
“I’ve taught at schools where I’ve been told ‘no’ a lot. Look at how small my class is. I come from 35 students and a lot of behavioral problems,” she said.
The teacher said she believes students will benefit from the project-based learning approach.
The projects are designed to help students learn how to work together and build team skills, Tiffanie Lewis said.
“We’re building a community of learners,” she said.