New WBR superintendent vows to improve school system

The teachers, faculty and staff of the West Baton Rouge Parish School System were welcomed back to work Thursday with an entertaining, motivational speech from new School Superintendent Wesley Watts.

In his first address to the district’s more than 380 teachers, Watts stressed the importance of being a positive example of the school system and pushing students to achieve more than they might think possible in the upcoming school year.

He said that should be the focus of the parish’s educators, rather than concentrating on state leaders’ continuing debate over Common Core standards.

The superintendent’s comments came during the school district’s annual kickoff meeting for faculty and staff Thursday morning. West Baton Rouge Parish students will return to school Monday.

“I don’t want them to get caught up in the Common Core debate,” Watts said after Thursday’s gathering, referring to the parish’s educators. “It’s a drain on teachers to see our state leaders in a fight about how to assess our kids. I want to shield them from that.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal filed court papers Wednesday urging a judge to bar Louisiana education officials from using Common Core tests in the state’s public schools.

The governor wants state District Judge Todd Hernandez to forbid the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Education from administering any standardized tests developed through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a testing consortium aligned with Common Core.

The new standards in reading, writing and math are supposed to take effect for the 2014-15 school year, with assessments scheduled next spring.

In June, Jindal ordered the state out of Common Core and the assessments that are supposed to accompany it. State Superintendent of Education John White and BESE are fighting the governor’s directive.

Watts, who officially began his two-year contractual obligation to the school system Aug. 1, urged teachers Thursday not to let the “Acronym Apocalypse” of state-mandated education policies stifle their day-to-day interactions with students.

“You are the key to a kid’s success,” he said during his speech Thursday. “We don’t know what BESE and the state will decide but we’ll be prepared for Common Core — let them fight over all the other stuff.”

Watts added, “We’re going to take our kids from some of the worst situations and make them succeed. We’re here to make them think they can do more than they actually can.”

While acknowledging the Department of Education’s school and district performance scores were an important indicator in measuring student success, Watts told teachers that as long as they maintain a positive attitude about teaching and the challenges it entails, the district’s scores would “take care of themselves.”

Watts, who served as the principal of Zachary High School for four years before accepting the superintendent post in West Baton Rouge Parish, announced that it is his goal to see the parish’s school system ranked as one of the top 10 school districts in the state in the immediate future.

Zachary is an A-rated school district, while West Baton Rouge Parish maintains a B average, according to the department’s 2013 District Performance Report.

“I want to kick Zachary’s tail,” Watts quipped, in a barb directed at his former school district. “I believe we already have all the pieces in place to do it.”

As of Thursday, the school system is set to receive 3,888 students when classes start Monday.

The district’s sixth- through eighth-graders will see the biggest changes when they return to class this year, as all junior high students will be provided with laptop computers as part of a more technology-driven curriculum.

Half of the funds used to purchase the 875 Google Chrome laptops came from a $200,000 grant. The parish’s School Board offered up an additional $200,000.

Tammy Seneca, the district’s supervisor of information systems and educational technology, said every junior high student in the parish will be assigned a password-protected Google account they’ll be able to log into in each of their classes via the laptop computers that will be available in each classroom.

Although the students won’t be able to take the portable computers home, Seneca said, students will be able to access their schoolwork at home by logging into their Google accounts on their home computers.

“We’re hoping, next year, to possibly expand the program and put them in our high schools,” Seneca said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.