By Heidi R. Kinchen
Florida Parishes bureau
August 11, 2012
St. Helena Central Elementary School opened its doors Monday morning to a new group of students — fifth-graders.
St. Helena officials reconfigured the school, which previously offered only prekindergarten through fourth grade, after learning late last week that the Louisiana Department of Education would not pursue agreements with the local district dictating how the school would be run, St. Helena Superintendent Kelli Joseph said Monday.
Between 15 and 20 fifth-graders chose to return Monday to the elementary school campus, rather than attend the state-run St. Helena Central Middle School, which serves grades 5-8, Joseph said.
The superintendent said she expects more of last year’s 94 fourth-graders to do the same as word gets out that the campus now offers fifth-grade classes.
St. Helena school officials wanted either to regain control of the middle school or to reconfigure the existing elementary and high schools to add back the grades lost to the state-run middle school, Joseph said.
The first avenue was closed July 30 by U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the district’s 60-year-old desegregation case. Brady said he wanted to see more than one year of improved test scores before transferring the middle school back to local control.
The second option was forbidden by agreements the district signed with the state, known as Memoranda of Understanding. The agreements, signed June 2009, required the schools to keep the same name and grades served.
Those contracts expired June 30, however, and St. Helena officials refused to sign any more such agreements.
The School Board had asked Brady to override the state’s request for new contracts, arguing that local officials are doing a better job at turning around the parish’s schools than the state, which has operated the middle school since May 2010.
After a July 30 status conference in the case, the state agreed to drop the issue, Joseph said.