Board targets weak schools

The Jefferson Parish public school system announced plans for a new way to support low-performing schools, a “Transformation Network,” at a special session board meeting Wednesday night.

Superintendent James Meza said that the initiative is part of his larger goal — and the benchmarks he set in his own contract — to eliminate D or F letter grades in all schools over the next two years.

The Transformation Network will support about eight to 10 schools in the district through a partnership with Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit whose stated mission is to transform public schools into high performance organizations and close the achievement gaps.

Meza called the organization the nation’s leader in turning around low-performing schools. The process will begin in the spring with an assessment of schools, before creating a plan to implement for the 2013–2014 school year.

As part of the larger concept of grouping schools into networks, the school district is in its second year with the Turnaround Network, which is serving about seven to 10 low-performing schools under the federal School Improvement Grant program.

Meza said that the Transformation Network will work more to bring changes from within, finding ways to improve and move forward with existing staff. The Turnaround approach was more drastic, with the replacement of all of the principals and about half of the faculty.

The Transformation Network will be less disruptive to the schools and give existing educators the opportunity to grow with the schools, Meza said.

Meza said the board has had to make difficult decisions about its own schools, but it has worked to create change from within, which it sees as preferable to schools being taken over by outside governance. Meza cites the numbers as evidence of success. When he took over, he said, there were about 30,000 students in D and F schools. That has dropped by about 10,000 students in just one year, but having 20,000 students still in low-performing schools is a figure that cannot be tolerated, he said.

Charter schools are another part of the strategic plan for improvement, Meza said, though Jefferson Parish has approved just a handful of charters in recent years, compared to Orleans Parish, where 84 percent of students now attend charter schools.

Meza also said that he is working toward creating an “autonomous zone,” where high-performing schools are given more decision-making power in terms of teaching and learning, as well as the budget. Part of that model would also bring in more parental involvement, giving parents more of a voice and sense of ownership, Meza said. The district would continue to provide support in terms of operational aspects such as food service, payroll, maintenance and transportation.

A second part of the initiative announced Wednesday will provide more opportunities for minority students to access and prepare for advance placement courses. The new school, which will target students in grades 6-12, will operate within an existing school, or possibly two schools, and will allow students arriving at school with economic disadvantages more time to take advanced courses through setting high expectations and rigorous academics.

The board also approved the adoption of a redistricting map Wednesday night, with the minor amendment of keeping the city of Westwego unified under the 1st District.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, the board approved a plan for a new security camera system across the district. That will cost $5 million over three yeas and will be funded by the refinancing of bonds.