The initial experience of schools accepting voucher students has been overwhelmingly positive, principals from the Diocese of Baton Rouge told state Superintendent of Education John White on Wednesday morning.
“We didn’t look at them differently,” said Bern Legendre, principal of St. John Interparochial Elementary School in Plaquemine. “They are a part of our family.”
The meeting was the second stop on White’s plan to visit a wide range of schools in 26 parishes.
Under a new state law, students who attend public schools rated C, D or F, and who meet income rules, can apply for state aid to attend private or parochial schools.
Melanie Verges, superintendent of schools for the diocese, said her schools had room for 423 students after roughly 1,500 applied.
Nearly 5,000 students statewide qualified for the vouchers, which provide state aid to cover tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools.
Sandy Pizzolato, principal of Ascension Catholic Elementary School and Ascension Catholic High School, said there was some apprehension initially about the influx of voucher students. But any concerns have disappeared, she said.
“They are happy to see new faces on campus,” Pizzolato said of her school communities.
Verges agreed. “We haven’t gotten any calls,” she said.
Verges said offering spots for the students is a part of Catholic identity and outreach efforts.
Verges said one concern is reading skills among some voucher students, especially in elementary grades. “Our hope is to bring students up to average or above average,” she said.
Several principals said some parents and students were suprised by the amount of homework given compared to their previous schools.
“The homework part has been an awakening for the kids,” said Jose Becerra, principal at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.
But Becerra said that issue has been manageble because of parental “buy in’ before classes started.
Mary Clare Polito, principal at St. Louis King of France School, said parents are heavily involved in their children’s new education venture “much more than we expected.
“They very much want to make a difference in their children’s lives,” Polito said.
Legendre made the same point.
“The parents are calling,” she said. “They are watching the grades.”
Before the new law, the state offered vouchers only to certain students in New Orleans.
Gov. Bobby Jindal asked state lawmakers to expand the aid statewide to give families another option out of failing public schools.
Critics contend the program is draining vital dollars from traditional public schools, where state spending per student has been frozen for four consecutive years.
Opponents have challenged the law in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. A hearing is set for next month.
White said that, during a visit to a Catholic school in Houma on Monday, he was pleased by the way that voucher students were indistinguishable from others.
“I was just so struck by what an opportunity we have,” he said.