“I’ve worked in industry the last 20 years. My job security was always based on my performance. I’ll approach teaching the same way.” cLEOTHA jOHNIGAN JR., SU teaching graduate
It was a rare day Friday as Baton Rouge’s three postsecondary institutions held their commencement ceremonies on the same day — all within hours of each other.
More than 5,000 students graduated from Baton Rouge Community College, LSU and Southern University.
Among about 600 students completing degree requirements at BRCC was Patricia Klemens, a Frankfurt, Germany, native who spoke about her future while bouncing on the tips of her toes. She received an honors associate degree in general studies. Klemens, who first came to the area in 2005 as a foreign exchange student at Zachary High School, is headed back to Frankfurt in two weeks to pursue another degree.
“It’s kind of hard to translate,” she said. “I guess you could say it’s business management in fashion retail. I feel really good right now.”
About 30 minutes later in another part of town, Leah Peoples, acting as the chief student marshal because of her perfect 4.0 grade point average, led a group of 636 students into the F.G. Clark Activity Center at Southern for their spring commencement.
The Wilmington, Del., native achieved that perfect score even after losing her furniture, computer, clothes and textbooks in a fire during her sophomore year.
But among all of the thousands of graduates who received their diplomas Friday, there is one group of graduates — Louisiana’s teachers — who are now entering a job market that has changed drastically in just the past several weeks.
Last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law two pieces of legislation intended to overhaul Louisiana’s public schools.
One of those measures would make it harder for public school teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure.
The other one allows public school students to offset a portion of the price to attend private and parochial schools with vouchers — dollars long reserved for the state’s roughly 1,300 public schools.
A few hours after 3,827 students picked up their diplomas at LSU’s 277th commencement ceremony, the university’s College of Education had a smaller gathering for more than 430 graduates — aged from 21 to 71 years old — pursuing teaching careers.
Mary Blanchard, 21, of Houma, received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She said she’s been preparing for changes in the state’s public schools because of their poor track record.
“I think about moving out of state all the time, but my family is too important to me. And I love Louisiana.”
Out of a dozen teaching graduates interviewed this week at LSU and Southern, about half expressed concern about the new direction Louisiana’s public schools are headed. The other half collectively shrugged their shoulders.
That’s in stark contrast to the noise made by hundreds of public school teachers who took days off of work to rally at the State Capitol as the two overhaul bills made their way through both chambers and onto the governor’s desk.
New Orleans native Meredith Hurst, 23, graduated from LSU Friday with a master’s degree in elementary education. She’s headed to the St. Bernard Parish public school system to teach the fourth grade.
Hurst said veteran teachers she worked with as a student teacher tried to discourage her from entering the profession because of some of the new laws. But the new graduate said she’s not particularly concerned about changes and what they could mean for her future job security.
“Tenure doesn’t bother me. It’s too easy to get right now,” Hurst said.
Southern University teaching graduate Cleotha Johnigan Jr., 39, of New Roads, also said the change in teacher tenure won’t affect him when he finds a job.
“I’ve worked in industry the last 20 years. My job security was always based on my performance. I’ll approach teaching the same way,” Johnigan said.
Willona Hogan, 34, also graduated from Southern’s College of Education this week.
Hogan said the voucher system could be problematic based on her experiences as a second-grade student teacher at a public school in a low-income area of Baton Rouge this year.
Hogan said she believes the motivated children and the children whose parents are more involved in their children’s education will disproportionately apply for the vouchers.
A system, she said, where lower-performing students are stuck in classrooms where they wouldn’t have the benefit of collaborating with their higher-achieving peers is “unfair” to both the students and the teachers come evaluation time.
Hogan said 18 out of the 23 students in her class as a student-teacher were behind grade level. Additionally, some of the more capable students made very little attempt to do the work they were assigned.
“They didn’t care about doing the work because their parents don’t care,” Hogan said. “When we had teacher conferences, only nine parents showed up. And that’s out of 23 students.”
But Sheila Lewis, director of student teaching at Southern’s College of Education said she doesn’t foresee any major problems for the state’s newer teachers or a mass exodus of teachers looking to leave the state.
“The student teachers are well prepared for the new changes. They are aware that tenure is no longer a perk or a luxury,” Lewis said. “They know they have to demonstrate effectiveness in the classroom.”
Verjanis Peoples, dean of Southern’s College of Education, said graduating teachers have been exposed to enough in-class teaching experiences and professional development seminars to be prepared for their future careers.
“Students who are committed to teaching are not paying a lot of attention to tenure and vouchers. They’re paying attention to the students they are going to be teaching.”