Pujol: Ascension School System facing new challenges

Despite its lofty ranking as one of Louisiana’s top school districts, the Ascension Parish School System faces several challenges in the near future as officials strive to move the district to even greater heights.

Superintendent Patrice Pujol discussed upcoming challenges with approximately two dozen business leaders and elected officials during Thursday’s meeting of the Ascension Community Coalition for Strong Schools at Gonzales Primary School.

Some of the major efforts, she said, include the construction of new schools to meet continued growth in the parish, meeting escalating performance standards for students and teachers, and recruiting young and qualified new teachers.

Although the district is in the middle of a $100 million school improvement project that has seen many of the district’s older schools receive facelifts, Pujol said, district officials are already planning for new schools that have to be built in the near future.

If current population estimates prove to be true, Pujol said, “we will need to build a new school a year for the next 20 years.”

Parish Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr., one of the community leaders who attended Thursday’s meeting, said he’s not sure the parish can continue to grow as quickly as many estimate. However, Pujol said she hasn’t seen any sign that school enrollment is slowing down.

The district has constructed six new schools in the past eight years, including G.W. Carver Primary School, which currently is under construction with planned completion prior to the start of the 2013-14 school year. Pujol said the thinking has changed from where the next school needs to be built to where the next set of schools — or “feeder system” — needs to be placed.

The district has purchased a half-dozen properties throughout the parish and has plans for three new primary and two new middle schools, Pujol said. She also said there will be a need for a new high school in the next seven or eight years, but the district currently doesn’t have enough money for its construction.

Dutchtown High School, which opened in 2002 at a cost of $30 million, was the last high school built in the parish. Pujol estimated a new high school today could cost twice that much.

“It’s going to be expensive,” she said.

As the district continues to expand with the arrival of new students, that expansion also creates a need for new teachers. Although there isn’t much employee turnover in the district, Pujol said, many teachers are reaching retirement age, opening up even more job opportunities.

“We’re trying to recruit young people into the profession,” she said. “We’re looking for talented young people to come work for us.”

Pujol also discussed the new, higher state standards that are coming to the classroom, including a new wrinkle that will require all high school students to take the ACT as part of the state’s school performance score program. She said she was “A-OK” with that because the ACT is “in line” with the new standards,

But Bill Martin, executive vice chancellor of River Parishes Community College, said it could be challenging to get students to take the ACT seriously if they aren’t planning to attend college.

School personnel are being “very aggressive” to provide proper motivation to the students, Pujol said, as the ACT scores will be more important to the district for some students since the scores will have no bearing on graduation.

“No doubt, it’s going to be a whole different ball game for us,” Pujol said.