State seeks to release control of PC Central, St. Helena Middle

After having snatched control of St. Helena Central Middle and Pointe Coupee Central High schools because of poor academic performance, the state is now on the verge of returning the schools to local control, even though neither school improved under the state’s watch.

In motions filed March 14, the state Recovery School District is asking the federal court to return jurisdiction of under-performing Pointe Coupee Central High to the Pointe Coupee Parish school system by closing the school and requiring its students be absorbed into Livonia High School, the school system’s higher-performing high school.

In St. Helena Parish, the Recovery School District is asking the court to grant the local school system temporary control for three years to improve St. Helena Central Middle without state interference.

But the parish school district, which plans to shutter the middle school and split the school’s grades between the parish’s elementary and high schools, could face takeover of its remaining two schools if they don’t improve.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said Wednesday that state officials don’t see their work in both parishes as a failure.

“We feel, in the time they were RSD schools, we did a good job of stabilizing the schools,” he said. “Academic performance improved slightly. Not at the level that’s acceptable to any of us, but we made progress in other areas.”

Dobard said a status conference for both motions is set for 1:30 p.m. Thursday in federal court in Baton Rouge, which has jurisdiction over the desegregation cases for those two school districts.

In the St. Helena case, the RSD has agreed to keep its hands off the elementary and high schools through spring 2017, even if the schools become eligible for takeover.

The two schools must make at least a D on their school performance scores by fall 2016 or face takeover by the RSD by the 2017-18 school year.

St. Helena also agreed to hire a third-party consulting organization to help turn around its schools’ poor academic performances. RSD will have the final say over which organization is hired.

State law requires the RSD to manage a school for at least five years once it begins running a school. That five-year period expires at the end of this school year for St. Helena Central Middle.

Data from the Louisiana Department of Education show St. Helena Central Middle’s performance hasn’t changed much since the state took it over in 2009.

In its first year under state control in 2009-10, the middle school earned a 55.2 school performance score, or an F. The school never scored above an F since the takeover.

In its court filings, RSD officials point to the new facilities at St. Helena’s elementary and high school, as well as Superintendent Kelli Joseph’s overhaul of the school system since she was hired as superintendent in 2011, as reasons why the parish should regain control of the middle school.

Joseph did not return phone calls for comment Wednesday.

In Pointe Coupee Parish, the RSD wants the court to transfer jurisdiction of Pointe Coupee Central High at the end of this school year and require the parish school district to absorb its remaining public high school students at Livonia High School for the 2014-15 school year.

RSD also is asking that the Pointe Coupee school system be required to submit a plan to the court outlining how the school district will use the Pointe Coupee Central High facility.

Pointe Coupee Parish Superintendent Linda D’Amico, in a prepared statement Wednesday, said: “The success of Livonia High School clearly demonstrates that the School Board can provide quality educational programming for its students.”

Pointe Coupee Central High was transferred to the RSD in 2008 after years of struggling to keep up with the state’s academic performance requirements.

The school opened as a charter school in summer 2008 under the management of Advance Baton Rouge, a nonprofit organization.

At the time, 549 students attended the school.

But after only one year under Advance Baton Rouge’s operation, Central High’s standardized test scores took a nosedive along with reports of disorderedly conduct among the students, declining enrollment and several administrative changes.

And things never improved even after RSD assumed operational control in fall 2012.

“Over the past six years, the Recovery School District has pursued multiple school turnaround strategies, and at this time, the RSD believes that the most effective school turnaround strategy for students is at Livonia High School,” RSD said in its court filing.

Within the past five years, Livonia High has raised its letter grade from a D to a C, court records show.

In 2013, Pointe Coupee Central High received an F from the state.

As of Oct. 1, some 185 students, in grades 8 through 12, were enrolled at Central High, all of whom are black and who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Livonia High offers a more racially and economically diverse student population of its 881 seventh- through 12th-graders, court records show.

Pointe Coupee School Board President Frank Aguillard said the board will meet soon to discuss the court case and determine its next course of action.

“Within the next year, we’ll have to decide what we’re going to do with that facility,” Aguillard said. “We already have some things in mind.”